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River otters make a splash at ABQ BioPark Aquarium

Mayhem the river otter holds hands with her trainer, Maddie Gandara, at the Tuesday opening of the River Otter Habitat at the ABQ BioPark Aquarium

Mayhem the river otter holds hands with her trainer, Maddie Gandara, at the Tuesday opening of the River Otter Habitat at the ABQ BioPark Aquarium. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Chaos and mayhem reigned supreme at the ABQ BioPark Aquarium on Tuesday as city and county officials formally opened the new River Otter Habitat, home to two 4-year-old female otters named Chaos and Mayhem.

Off the aquarium’s main lobby on the south side of the building, it features a 25,000 gallon pool inside a 3,000-square-foot sloping exhibit space. A slide at the top of the slope allows Chaos and Mayhem to glide into their crystal-clear freshwater pool.

“They love it. They’re very active and playful,” aquarium manager Holly Casman said. “They love going in and out of the pool and pushing their toys around and wrestling with each other.”

The exhibit space is heavily planted with native New Mexico vegetation intended to mimic the riparian environment of the Rio Grande Gorge area, where otters have been reintroduced, Casman said. “It’s a very naturalistic environment for them.”

The exhibit also contains multi-angle, above ground viewing areas, and underwater viewing panels in the exhibition space below the main floor. There, interactive and educational displays provide information about otters, including one item that had many people talking.

“I didn’t know there were river otters in New Mexico, and now I know they were native to the state,” said Nikki Rowell, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the University of New Mexico. “The exhibit is amazing. It looks like they have a pretty big space, and it’s exciting that you can see above and below the water.”

The River Otter Habitat at the aquarium features a 25,000 gallon pool inside a 3,000 square foot exhibition space

The River Otter Habitat at the aquarium features a 25,000 gallon pool inside a 3,000 square foot exhibition space. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

“I think it’s cool that they can survive out of the water but hold their breath under the water for a really long time,” said 12-year-old Malea Thomas. “I didn’t know there were river otters in New Mexico.”

And that is one of the main goals of the River Otter Habitat, “to spread the word that otters are back,” Casman said.

In the early 1950s, river otters in New Mexico were driven to extinction by pelt trappers and by fishermen who sought to eliminate them, believing the otters were eating the same sport fish they were angling for.

In truth, the otters were not competing with them.

“Sport fish are generally too fast to be caught by otters, so the otters went after easier and slower food sources – bottom feeders such as suckers, carp and catfish,” Casman said. In addition, the otters were eating non-native and invasive species, such as crayfish and bullfrogs. “So they were performing a valuable service and were not as destructive or voracious as the fishermen made them out to be,” she said.

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Trainer Maddie Gandara works with Mayhem during Tuesday’s opening of the new River Otter Habitat at the ABQ BioPark Aquarium. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

From 2008 to 2010, 33 trapped “nuisance” otters from other states were reintroduced into the Rio Pueblo de Taos, a tributary of the Rio Grande, said Jim Stuart, the non-game mammal specialist with the state Department of Game and Fish. Since then, the otters have been breeding and expanding their range.

“Otters are very mobile animals and they have moved out of that initial release site into the Rio Grande and other tributaries,” he said. “We’ve had sightings of them from the Colorado state line down to Cochiti Lake. Studies are underway to determine their numbers, but certainly there are many more than the original 33,” Stuart said.

Chaos and Mayhem, who were not among the group of 33, were trapped and sent to Albuquerque two years ago after getting a bit too comfortable near a Louisiana shrimp farm.

River otters generally measure 3-4 feet long and can weigh up to 20 pounds. In captivity, otters can live for about 10 years, a bit less in the wild.

Otters are sometimes confused with larger water dwelling beavers, which are also present in New Mexico, said Stuart. However, beavers are rodents and herbivores, preferring a diet of leaves, bark, twigs, roots, and aquatic plants. While otters are predominantly carnivorous, eating fish, shellfish, insects and the occasional bird, amphibian, muskrat and rabbit.

According to a number of wildlife websites including The Nature Conservancy, the San Diego Zoo and the Smithsonian, otters are members of the mustelid family, as are skunks, weasels, badgers, martens, mink, and wolverines. Mustelids have a scent gland that they use for sexual signaling and marking territory.

The diet that Chaos and Mayhem enjoy at the aquarium consists mostly of fish, some shellfish. “But they also love sweet potatoes and carrots,” said Casman.

The otter habitat at the aquarium was built at a cost of $2.7 million in joint funding from the city, county, state, the New Mexico BioPark Society, Southwest Capital Bank and BioPark gross receipts tax.

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