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Tennessee Aquarium welcomes first female otter, opening door to possible breeding program

Aug 21, 2023

Chattanooga, Tenn. (Aug. 21, 2023) – For 31 years, the first animals to greet guests beginning their exploration of the Tennessee Aquarium have been a rollicking romp of North American River Otters.

These lithe, charismatic animals have awed tens of millions of visitors with their playfulness and agile grace in the water. However, until recently, River Otter Falls has been a boys-only club.

In June, the Aquarium welcomed the newest resident of its first living forest gallery: a two-year-old female named Sunshine. Guests visiting the Aquarium over the Labor Day holiday will be able to see this energetic newcomer from the Little Rock Zoo, who has been exploring her new home and winning over the hearts of her caretakers since her arrival.

“The interactions we’ve already had with her and that I’ve seen her have with the public — it almost feels like anybody could be her trainer,” says Senior Animal Care Specialist Jennifer Wawra. “I think she’s very interested in people. Anyone could come up, and she’d be happy to see you.”

The Aquarium’s North American River Otters are well-loved for their curiosity, enthusiastically approaching the exhibit’s acrylic viewing windows and shadowing guests as they explore the Appalachian Cove Forest gallery. Notoriously skillful swimmers, the otters frequently perform gold-medal-worthy dives into the exhibit’s many pools and twine around each other in playful underwater tussles.

The introduction of such a young otter to the romp, let alone a female, is bound to impact group dynamics, says Aquarium Veterinarian Dr. Chris Keller.

“Talk about enrichment,” Dr. Keller laughs. “Having a young female come into the romp is the ultimate in changing your vibe.

“And if any of the otters don’t respond as well to Sunshine — because we have our otters in such a great facility — we’ll be able to separate them. That way, we can keep the group dynamic positive and let any of the older otters who prefer it to have their ‘retirement time.’”

Sunshine, the Tennessee Aquarium's new female North American River Otter (Lontra canadensis) in the River Otter Falls exhibit.

Sunshine, the latest addition to the Tennessee Aquarium’s romp of North American River Otters, raises a paw while swimming in the River Otter Falls exhibit. She is the first female otter to live at the Aquarium.

So far, Sunshine’s over-abundance of youthful energy and zeal for enthusiastically interacting with “boomer balls,” ice chips, and other enrichment items introduced to her has made her a delight to watch, says Animal Care Specialist II Tyler Schneider.

“She’s a nice, very active, high-energy otter,” he says. “We’ve seen her a lot more at the acrylic swimming back and forth with us and with the public.

“It gives guests a chance to see why the exhibit is set up like it is and to see the otters behaving as they would in the wild. She uses everything a lot more thoroughly and gives the whole exhibit a greater sense of purpose.”

Sunshine joins the Aquarium’s five male otters: Hunter, Digger, Benny, Louie, and Maya. Unlike Sunshine, who was born and raised in human care, the Aquarium’s male otters came to the Aquarium from the wild as rescued orphans or relocated nuisance animals.

Because of their origins, the genetics of the Aquarium’s male otters are unrepresented among the population of North American River Otters living in human care. As such, they have long been highly valued as potential breeding partners by the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s North American River Otter Species Survival Plan managers.

With the arrival of Sunshine, the Aquarium is hopeful River Otter Falls could soon be home to a new generation of healthy otter pups, says Curator of Forests Kevin Calhoon.

“We’ve been thinking about exploring our options to breed our otters for a really long time,” Calhoon says. “We have male otters with such good genetics and some of the best facilities in the world to care for North American River Otters. It would be a real shame not to give them the opportunity to breed.”

Sunshine, the Tennessee Aquarium's new female North American River Otter (Lontra canadensis), enjoys the facility's River Otter Falls exhibit.

The latest addition to the Tennessee Aquarium’s River Otter Falls exhibit, Sunshine, coils up, ready to launch herself through the water. The first and only female otter to live at the Aquarium, Sunshine opens up the possibility for the Aquarium to pursue a breeding program in the future.

Female North American River Otters give birth to litters of between one and four pups. As adorable as baby otters would be — and as enthusiastically as their birth would be celebrated — the prospect of Sunshine becoming a mother is still more than a year away at the earliest. Even if breeding is successful, female North American River Otters undergo delayed implantation, meaning fertilized eggs can pause their development for up to a year.

Regardless of her future maternal potential, Sunshine being the first female exhibited at the Tennessee Aquarium is a banner moment and an exciting step for the otter program.

“This is a big culmination event for me, like ‘I can’t believe she’s really here,’” says Wawra, who has worked with the Aquarium’s otters for more than a decade. “Sometimes, it doesn’t feel real.”

Interested in checking in on the Aquarium’s river otters? A webcam offers a live-streamed view of River Otter Falls and is viewable at tnaqua.org/live/river-otter-falls/

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