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The aquatic majesty of the giant otter

Hi! My name is Whitney, and I am the newest member of the Zoo’s Carnivore Team. I am originally from Minnesota, and yes, I still say “pop” over “soda.” I moved to North Carolina about seven years ago before I came down to Atlanta. My animal career actually started off in aquatics. I started as an aquarist working with sharks, stingrays, a giant Pacific octopus, and fish before taking a chance to move to Texas working with large mammals. Eventually this past summer I made my way to Alaska to intern as a Marine Mammal Trainer working with Steller’s sea lions, spotted  seals, and ringed seals. Which brings me to tell you about one, or well two, of my favorite animals here at Zoo Atlanta: the giant river otters!  

We have two giant river otters here at Zoo Atlanta, Bakairi and Tocantins, or “Toca.” Only a handful of zoos/aquariums house them in North America, which makes it even more exciting to be able to work and see these animals up close. Toca is our female otter and is 14 years old. Bakairi is actually her nephew and is 11 years old. So how do we tell them apart? Giant river otters’ fur is a dark brown, with a white/beige patch that can extend from the jawline to the chest. This patch is unique on each animal and acts almost as a fingerprint. No patterning is the same! Bakairi’s patch is more like a beard, while Toca’s is more of an S-shaped or figure eight.   

Giant rver otters are the world’s longest of the 13 otter species. Males can reach up to nearly 6 feet long, and females about 4.5 feet. They are very social creatures and live in family groups. They are semi aquatic animals, so they depend on both water and land to survive. They love to take naps during warmer days. I totally relate, who doesn’t love a good nap?  They are found in South American river systems, mainly in the Amazon River Basin. They are currently listed as endangered according to the IUCN, due to fur pelt demand in the 1970s to habitat destruction currently going on. However, in 2021 they were thought to be locally extinct in Argentina, a giant otter surfaced for the first time in 40 years! In the wild, they do live to be about 10 years of age, but under human care we have been able to extend their lives to the late teens.

Giant otters are excellent swimmers and divers with their short, webbed feet and flattened tails. They have the ability to seal their nose and ears underwater, as well as detect the shifts in the water with the help of their whiskers. They can swim 330 feet in less than 30 seconds!

So how can you help these incredible creatures? First off, come visit Zoo Atlanta and say hi to the Zoo’s giant otters! Watch them swim, eat, and nap. Let’s be honest, mostly napping. Secondly, support conservation efforts such as Save the Giants, which is a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to preserving giant otters. Lastly, Seafood Watch is an excellent way to know if the seafood you are buying at the market or the store is being harvested in a sustainable way for our environment. Giant river otters are incredible creatures, and I really hope your coming to Zoo Atlanta and seeing them with your own eyes will inspire you.

Whitney F.
Keeper I, Carnivores

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl