Otters on campus take students by surprise

February 21st, 2022

Otter on a frozen, snow-covered lake, as seen in between bushes
Otis and Ollie, the otters that have recently inhabited Lake LaVerne, are most active in the early morning hours and after dark. Image courtesy of Jennie Wohl, sophomore in pre-interior design

By Amber Friedrichsen

A couple of unlikely characters have recently made Iowa State University their temporary home. Two North American river otters mysteriously appeared on Lake LaVerne a few weeks ago and have been stealing attention from the lake’s winged tenants ever since.

North American river otters are typically found in and around rivers – hence the species’ common name – but it is not unusual for these animals to relocate to lakes and ponds in the winter when rivers freeze. Even so, Mike Rentz, associate teaching professor in natural resource ecology and management, said the otters on campus are somewhat of an anomaly.

Rentz said he suspects the otters originally came from the Skunk River and may have voyaged to Ames via Ioway Creek or College Creek. They would have had to travel on land through parts of the city to get to Lake LaVerne, and exactly how they made it here is unknown. However, the reason they have chosen to stay is not.

“There is a lot of food in the lake right now, and the otters are definitely chowing down on all the fish,” Rentz said. “They are taking advantage of the lake’s aerators because they are keeping the ice open for them to get in and out of the water easily.”

The otters have been spotted by many students since their arrival, but Isabella Maiwurm, sophomore in animal ecology, and her suitemates claim to have been the first. After one of her roommates snapped a picture of the otters on Jan. 23, Maiwurm was determined to see the animals in person. The four them ventured to Lake LaVerne that evening to get a better look.

“We saw both otters, and then we continued to go back to see them every night,” Maiwurm said. “I initially thought they were muskrats, but when I took another look, I realized they were way too big and did not fit muskrat behavior.”

Otters belong to the mustelid family, sharing a branch of the phylogenetic tree with other animals including weasels, badgers and ferrets. Rentz said these types of mammals are smart and tend to be very playful, and the otters on campus are no exception. They have been caught teasing each other, romping around in the snow, and sliding on the ice in numerous pictures and videos.

North American river otters are not strictly nocturnal, but Maiwurm has had the best luck taking her own pictures and videos of the otters before sunrise and after dark. She showed this footage to her professors and peers in Animal Ecology 231: Wildlife and Fisheries Conservation, and it led to an impromptu discussion about real-life conservation efforts in Iowa. 

Maiwurm named the otters Otis and Ollie, but knows the duo might not stick around long. The length of their stay ultimately depends on their food supply and perceived safety. Although their audience have kept a respectful distance so far, traffic on Lincoln Way could potentially pose a threat to the otters. Nonetheless, Rentz said their appearance is a testament to the species’ growing population.

In the early 1900s, North American river otters were extirpated from Iowa after being heavily hunted for their fur. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the species was reintroduced to the state, albeit some logistical challenges.

At the time, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources was interested in buying otters from Louisiana, but this purchase was prohibited by Iowa law. Kentucky, on the other hand, had the freedom to buy otters from Louisiana, but they needed to restore their wild turkey population instead. Therefore, Iowa and Kentucky made a deal: for every otter Kentucky brought to Iowa, Iowa would give two turkeys to Kentucky in return.

This small trade transformed into a great success. In fact, Rentz said North American river otters can be found in all 99 counties of Iowa today. Nonetheless, Otis and Ollie are two unexpected yet celebrated guests. 

“The takeaway is that it’s a privilege we get to share campus with the otters,” Rentz said. “The fact there is one little pond with a city built around it and that’s where they decided to live is an indication the species is doing well.”

A look back at "Otter Day" on campus

This isn’t the first time otters have been admired at Iowa State. According to information in the March 5, 1988, edition of The Daily Tribune, on March 7, 1998, a campus-wide “Otter Day” was held to promote the project developed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to reintroduce the species to the state. There were live otter displays, radio tracking demonstrations, and guest speakers from the DNR. The ISU Fish and Wildlife Biology Club had been actively involved in planning the event, and they joined forces with the ISU Fur-Harvesters Club to sell t-shirts with the phrase “They Otter be in Iowa,” on them. All proceeds from t-shirt sales were put toward the DNR’s otter reintroduction project.