CHATTANOOGA — A romp of feisty otters is making a big splash in their new home at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga. River Otter Falls features five waterfalls, multiple pools, a rocky, tiered landscape and sand pits for digging. Groups of two to five otters take turns exploring this habitat surrounded by a beautiful cove forest with free flying birds and a rushing trout stream.
More than two years of planning and construction resulted in a habitat that draws guests into the somewhat hidden world of North American river otters. “They are animals that use the edge effect, where two very different ecosystems are next to each other like forest and meadow,” said Dave Collins, the Tennessee Aquarium’s curator of forests. “Except in this case, it’s providing a lot of edges between water and land. Otters search for food, travel and watch for predators along the water’s edge. By providing a lot of edges, we’ve created a rich environment for the otters. They have a lot of choices to stimulate them and provide opportunities for guests to observe their natural behaviors.”
Making a comeback
Among the first to see River Otter Falls was Bruce Anderson, a retired endangered species biologist. One of the first conservation efforts Anderson worked on, after landing a job with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), was restoring river otters.
North American river otters had always flourished in the United States until the rise in fur trading during the 1700s. According to Anderson, otters were still being pursued for their pelts into the 20th century. “During the Great Depression, one otter hide was worth a week’s wages,” said Anderson. “So they were hunted and trapped pretty relentlessly in Tennessee.” As a result, otters disappeared from Middle and East Tennessee by 1958. For nearly 30 years, only a few sightings were reported in West Tennessee and otters were listed as an endangered species.
1984 marked the comeback for river otters in Tennessee. That’s the year TWRA began the first of a series of endangered species restoration programs. “The first otters were obtained in Louisiana and were released into the Obed Wild and Scenic River,” said Anderson. “Radio transmitters were implanted to track the animals to make sure they were going to survive in our area.” Anderson’s team tracked the otters for 18 months, gathering data on their movements and behavior.
Shortly after that first reintroduction, Anderson feared the program could end abruptly. “The winter after they were released, the temperature at Crossville dropped to 24 degrees below zero and the Obed River froze over completely,” said Anderson. “But they were just fine and never missed a beat. We knew this program would be successful when the life of the transmitters ran out and we hadn’t lost any otters.”
TWRA reintroduced otters in every major river system in the state until 1993. The animals flourished and were taken off of Tennessee’s endangered species list in 1999.
The return of river otters also helped rebalance natural systems in other ways. “The river habitat was different before we began bringing otters back,” said Anderson. “We had a lot of rough fish like carp that were competing with native fish. The rough fish, and slow swimming fish, are what the otters target first. So the otters greatly reduced the populations of carp and rough fish, allowing native fish populations to improve greatly.”
Anderson helped bring back many species throughout his career with TWRA. He also restored ospreys, golden eagles and bald eagles. But he’s always had a soft spot for river otters, the furry faces of conservation. “It’s a thrill to see them play, roll around and swim at the Aquarium,” said Anderson. “Even though I was involved with a lot of releases, I only saw one or two others in the wild. Seeing otters up close here brings back a sense of accomplishment to realize that I was part of a program that helped restore these animals.”
The Tennessee Aquarium, a nonprofit organization, inspires wonder, appreciation and protection of water and all life that it sustains. Each ticket purchased helps support Aquarium conservation programs.