For the first time since the early 1900s, a river otter has been spotted in the Detroit River.

A recent article from greatlakesnow.org begins with the story of Eric Ste Marie,a doctoral student at the University of Windsor’s department of integrative biology, who was taking a stroll along the Detroit River just last week (4/25/22). It was during that walk that he spotted an animal pop its head out of the water.

At first, he thought it was a mink but upon closer inspection, he determined the animal was too large. He looked for a flat tail to determine if the creature was a beaver but did not find one. The animal surfaced once again and he was able to see clearly that this little cutie was, in fact, a river otter.

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Why Is This So Significant?

River otters were once quite common in the SE Michigan area. But, that changed thanks to the fur trades conducted by the newly arrived European explorers, according to Monroe County Museum System historian, Gearld P. Wykes. He went on to say,

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 the 1980s, river otters were introduced to rivers and streams in eastern Ohio and, apparently, thrived. Their population started to grow once again and they began expanding:

  • By the early 2000s, they were in western Ohio
  • By 2019, they were spotted in Point Pelee National Park in Leamington, Ontario
  • Now, in 2022, they've been spotted, again, in SE Michigan

The reason this is so significant is that, to biologists studying the Detroit River, this is a sign that the Detroit River is now clean enough for otters to not just survive but, hopefully, live healthy lives. According to the above-mentioned article from greatlakesnow.org,

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.

Good news, indeed. Because, even if you have no knowledge of environmental conservation, biology, or the like...spotting one of these little guys floating along the river can be exciting because they're just so darn cute!

You can read more about river otters, their behavior, diet, and more here.


If you happen to be out and about in a secluded, wooded area near a river in the winter, keep an eye out for these tracks. It might be a sign that a river otter is near!

Did you know that in the state of Michigan you can, legally, own an otter? There are a few requirements. See more below:

9 Animals That Are, Surprisingly, Legal to Own in Michigan

Pet-O-Ween 2020