Marine otter (Lontra felina)

Also known as: Chilean sea otter, Patagonian otter, sea cat, South American sea otter
Synonyms: Lutra californica, Lutra chiliensis, Lutra cinerea, Lutra felina, Lutra peruensis, Lutra peruviensis, Mustela felina
French: Chungungo
Spanish: Chichimen, Chinchimen, Chingungo, Gato De Mar, Gato Marino, Huallaca, Nutria De Mar
GenusLontra (1)
SizeTotal length: 83 – 115 cm (2)
Tail length: 30 – 36 cm (2)
Weight3.2 – 5.8 kg (2)

The marine otter is classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List (1) and is listed on Appendix I of CITES (3). It is also listed on Appendix I of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS or Bonn Convention) (4).

The smallest of the New World otters, the marine otter displays charisma, charm and dexterity. Males and females look alike with a long, slim body, a flat head with a wide, whiskered muzzle, and a shorter tail than other otter species. They have small ears, a stubby nose and powerful teeth that slice efficiently through flesh. The legs are short but muscular and the feet are large and webbed for agility and speed underwater. The fur is rough and coarse, in contrast to the smooth fur of freshwater otters. It is dark brown above fading slightly towards the underside. The tail is darker, but the chin, cheeks and throat are pale brown. The marine otter’s nose is furry and has two slit-like nostrils that can close underwater (2).

The marine otter is found along the coast of the Pacific Ocean, from northern Peru south to Cape Horn, Chile and the Isla de Los Estados, Argentina (1).

Rarely found in freshwater, the marine otter prefers exposed coastal areas, tolerating rough conditions and enjoying regions with a variety of fish, molluscs and crustaceans (1).

Although surprisingly nimble on land, the marine otter is adapted for life in the water and can be seen swimming with the head and upper back out of the water and the body submerged. It makes frequent 15 to 30 second dives to a depth of 40 metres whilst searching for fish, cephalopods, crustaceans and molluscs. It has also been recorded eating shore-side fruit when in season. It emerges from the sea to eat, rest and play on rocky islets and it will also scent mark with pungent urine to claim these rocks as its own. Marine otters will fight over food and favoured rocks, squealing loudly and biting each other’s faces. Despite this, otters are not strongly territorial, and the ranges of many males and females overlap. They have even been seen to fish cooperatively (2).

The reproductive behaviour of the marine otter is poorly understood, but they are thought to be monogamous unless both prey and potential mates are abundant, when they mate with many partners. Mating occurs in December and January and cubs are born from January to March in dens or concealed areas amongst rocks and vegetation. Between two and five cubs are born and these remain with their parents for around 10 months as they are fed and taught to hunt for themselves (2).

This species suffers myriad threats from many sources. The marine otter has been hunted for many centuries for its pelts which are used mainly for footwear. This has resulted in continuing population declines across the range. More recently, the marine otter has also been subjected to habitat loss as a growing tourism industry has led to increased coastal construction and participation in water sports. Water pollution following oil spills and heavy metal mining, over-fishing of prey species, persecution by fishermen, and drowning in crab traps and fishing nets are also contributing to this charismatic species’ decline (2).

The marine otter is legally protected in Peru, Chile and Argentina and occurs in several protected areas, but human poverty levels are high along the coasts and the pelt of one marine otter is worth the same as a month’s wages. With poor law enforcement, hunting is an attractive source of income and both a change in public attitude to otters as well as increased law enforcement are necessary in order to slow the decline of this species. Conservation work is becoming more common in South America and it is hoped that this will create a higher level of awareness in the public about the marine otter’s plight (2).

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This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (January, 2009)
  2. Otter Joy (January, 2009)
  3. CITES (January, 2009)
  4. CMS (January, 2009)