The Origin of the "River Otter"


Did you know that there were no "river otters" until a hundred years ago? It's true! If you were to travel back in time to the 19th century or before and inquire about "river otters," not a single person would have heard of such an animal.

As someone who studies otters in a marine habitat, I've come to regard the term "river otter" as something of an annoyance. I'm always surprised how most people, including many biologists, seem to think that the common name of an animal must somehow be indicative of its natural history. Time after time, I've encountered others who tell me that my research results are questionable or even invalid because my sea-going otters "aren't real river otters," as if to imply that, by virtue of the animal's common name, they just assume that the "normal" habitat for otters is a river. Having observed firsthand that otters don't care a whit in what kind of water they find their food (and that riverine habitats tend to support the lowest population levels of otters relative to almost every other type of aquatic habitat), it made me wonder where this misleading "river" appellation came from. Surely those familiar with the scientific literature on otters must have noticed that there was a time when otters were simply called otters? When did someone get the idea to add the "river" to this animal's name, and just who was that someone?

I admit my knowledge of otter literature is not as comprehensive as some, but try as I might, I have been unable to find any reference to an animal called a "river otter" in any scientific publication prior to 1913. Lutromorphs have been on Earth since the late Oligocene, but it would appear that the "river otter" did not exist until the early twentieth century.

So what is the provenance of this term? The following article contains, to the best of my knowledge, the very first usage of the common name "river otter" in printed literature:

Grinnell, Joseph. 1913. A distributional list of the mammals of California. Proc. Cal. Acad. Sci., 4th series, Vol. 3, p.297.

Before this, there were "otters" and there were "sea otters." There was no need for any further distinction. When someone said "otter" or "sea otter," it was understood precisely to which animal they were referring. My own theory is that the term "river otter" found greater usage and acceptance when people began to increasingly refer to sea otters as simply "otters" (another pet peeve of mine), so that today, when someone says "otter," it is no longer obvious which lutrine species they are talking about. Joseph Grinnell, being curator of the vertebrate museum at the University of California at Berkeley during the time that sea otters were rediscovered off the California coast, would doubtless have encountered this ambiguity on an almost daily basis. So perhaps it's natural that Grinnell would find it necessary to add something extra to the name "otter" so that such misunderstandings would be minimized. The need was clear; I only wish Grinnell had chosen a name that better reflected the facts of this animal's natural history.

Anyway, for years, I've had a standing bet open that if anyone could find a reference to a species called a "river otter" prior to 1913 in any scientific literature in the English language (or any literature for that matter), I would give that person $1000. I can no longer afford to pay off on such a bet were I to lose it, but in the more than 20 years since I first offered that challenge, no one to date has been able to show me that "river otters" existed before Grinnell's 1913 publication.

Myself, if a clarifying appellation is needed, I prefer the older common name "land otter," as otters are, both in body conformation and life history, principally terrestrial animals. (The common name "land otter" does have nomenclatural "priority" over "river otter" by about a century, as well.) The noted lay otter expert Emil Liers also preferred to use "land otter." (N.b., Liers' landmark 1951 article in the Journal of Mammalogy entitled, "Notes on the river otter" was actually ghost-written by Dr. Emmet Hooper, then an editor of J. Mammal., so it would appear that Liers' putative endorsement of Grinnell's new name was actually an editorial decision of Hooper's, not Liers' own choice of words. It's interesting to note that, later in 1951, Liers wrote his own article for Natural History magazine entitled, "My friends the land otters," as if to make the point that he favored that variant of the animals' common name.)

Actually, if one ponders the matter, in most states of the US, and in most countries of the world, there is no need to refer to one's native lutrine species as anything more than an otter. The "river" part of the common name is, in most circumstances, unnecessary. And in some cases, as I've noted, it can actually be misleading. I wonder sometimes how many otters were translocated to sub-optimal riverine habitats by biologists who just assumed that rivers are this species' "natural" habitat, simply because of the animal's generally accepted common name.

So, even though I live in one of those states where there are two native lutrines, I simply refer to my animals as otters. I long ago got tired of people asking "Where's the river?" when I would tell them my seafaring critters were river otters!

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