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River otters return to the Detroit River

River otters return to the Detroit River
April 29, 2022 John Hartig

On the cool morning of April 25, doctoral student Eric Ste Marie from the University of Windsor’s department of integrative biology went out for a walk with his partner along the Detroit River prior to an anticipated long day in his lab. Much to his surprise, he saw an animal pop its head out of the water. It was too big to be a mink and, as it dove, he noticed that it did not have a flat beaver tail. Ste Marie ran out to the end of a pier beneath the Ambassador Bridge to get a closer look to check, and there it was: a river otter.

“It was the last thing I was expecting to see,” Ste Marie said.

The North American river otter is a semi-aquatic mammal, meaning it lives partly in the water and partly on land. They can grow to 3-4 feet and can weigh 11-31 pounds. River otters can stay underwater for as many as eight minutes and have long whiskers which they use to detect prey in dark or cloudy water.

They have clawed feet ideal for grasping onto slippery prey and thick, protective fur to help them keep warm while swimming in cold waters. River otters are built for swimming – they have short legs, webbed feet, and a long, narrow body and flattened head for streamlined movement in the water. They are well known for playful behaviors that actually help them learn important survival skills such as hunting techniques, how to mark their territory with their scent, and how to develop social bonds.

“River otters were quite common in southeast Michigan, including the Detroit River, up through the arrival of European explorers and fur traders,” said Gearld P. Wykes, a historian from the Monroe County Museum System. “During the fur trade era, they were much sought after for their fur, along with beaver. Based on historical records, river otters were likely extirpated from the Detroit River in the early 1900s.”

In 1986, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources reintroduced river otters into high water quality rivers and streams in eastern Ohio. The river otters thrived. As their population grew, they began to move westward – what scientists call expanding their range. By the early 2000s, they had found a home in western Ohio, particularly near Cedar Point and Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, just east of Toledo.

But the otters were not done. In 2019, river otters were discovered across western Lake Erie at Point Pelee National Park in Leamington, Ontario, the first time they had been seen in the national park since it was established in 1918.

Biologists studying the Detroit River and resource managers have been excited about the possible range expansion of river otters into the Detroit River. There have been a few anecdotal reports from citizens, but no photographic or videographic proof until Ste Marie was greeted with that ecological surprise on the morning of April 25.

“The Detroit Zoo is so excited to hear that the Detroit River is now clean enough for river otters and is committed to working with regional partners to further conservation efforts, including for river otters,” said Elizabeth Arbaugh, curator of mammals at the Detroit Zoological Society.

The Detroit Zoo maintains the 2,500-square-foot Edward Mardigian Sr. River Otter Habitat, which incorporates indoor and outdoor living environments. The zoo also performs research on the effects of habitat modification on river otter behavior and substrate use.

River otters are considered an indicator species, and their return to the Detroit River after an absence of more than 100 years is a hopeful sign of improving watershed conditions.

“As a local resident, it makes me hopeful that the Detroit River ecosystem is healing and that soon these types of sightings may become more common,” Ste Marie said.

John Hartig is a board member at the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. He serves as a Visiting Scholar at the University of Windsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research and has written numerous books and publications on the environment and the Great Lakes. Hartig also helped create the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, where he worked for 14 years as the refuge manager.


Catch more news at Great Lakes Now: 

Great Lakes Moment: River otters return to western Lake Erie

Great Lakes Moment: Detroit River, a magnet for bald eagle photography


Featured image: A river otter was seen in the Detroit River off the Windsor shoreline and near the Ambassador Bridge, on April 25, 2022. (Photo Credit: Eric Ste Marie)

14 Comments

  1. Carrie Genoff 5 months ago

    I would not share the location or information about fur bearing animals to the public or the DNR it puts the animal in grave danger.. If you look at Mich.gov Hunting fur bearing… you will see that they still allow trapping… that means drowning. I love otters and all wildlife, I hope this otter stays safe.

    • John H. Hartig 5 months ago

      They need protection!

  2. Jay 5 months ago

    We saw them two years ago in our canal in Wyandotte. Right off the Detroit river. I have video.

    • John H. Hartig 5 months ago

      They are adventurous! Can you put your video on YouTube?

  3. Bobby Moore 5 months ago

    Just saw them in the Grand River near Lk. Michigan for the 1st time last Summer.

  4. William McDaniel 5 months ago

    That’s great and refreshing news, thank you. I can remember back in the 50s when the Detroit River was a flowing cesspool with steel mills and refineries and many other industries dumping their waste into the Great Lakes. It was not unusual to see schools of fish floating belly up in the river. The city of Detroit would sometimes dump raw sewage into the Detroit River when heavy rains overtaxed the sewer system. In the mid 60s there was a major attempt to clean up the Great Lakes. The architect engineering company I worked for loaned me out to a major distillery in Canada that had been dumping their spent mash into the Detroit River for many years. We built a large building for them that contained equipment to reprocess the mash and then sell it as an animal feed protein ingredient. Also many neighborhoods have disappeared in Detroit and I would think that should have lightened the sewage load on the sanitation system to help when heavy rains occur. Again, thanks for the great news.

    • John H. Hartig 5 months ago

      The 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s experienced heavy oil pollution. River otters and beavers could not have survived in those days because oil would mat their fur and they could not thermoregulate. So good to see the improvements, but much more to be done.

  5. Karen Wernette 5 months ago

    I saw one while visiting Belle Isle outside by Conservatory. I have 2 pictures

    • Natasha Blakely 5 months ago

      Hi Karen, would you be willing to share the pictures? – GLN News Director Natasha Blakely

    • John H. Hartig 5 months ago

      Would love to see the pictures!

  6. Abe Hammoud 5 months ago

    Just seen one monday on lake erie at pointe mouillee got a picture and a video

  7. Sydney 5 months ago

    I saw one today in the Detroit River!

  8. Pegt 4 months ago

    As we were watching the sun set on Lake Michigan and out about 200 feet, we saw something dark and long (12 inches plus , if not more). It would surface, swim and then flip back down) moving at a fast speed underwater, surfacing again, farther away. We could see it’s head and back and it popping back up at least 12 times before it was too dark for us to see. One time it surfaced it shook his head before diving under.
    There were small fish (Alewives?) dying swimming sideways in the water and waves where pushing a few of them onto shore. There where a few dead fish on the sand at the shore. Sorry to say, we couldn’t get a picture because of dusk and it were too far out. Who do I contact about our siting on the western shore of Lake Michigan?

    file:///var/mobile/Library/SMS/Attachments/62/02/98E642E6-2A63-4DEB-95AF-442FAEAEA826/IMG_2558.HEIC

    • Peg Terkeurst 4 months ago

      ***West shores of Lake Michigan (East side of Michigan).

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