Who doesn’t love an otter? I am sure that we have all spent time at the zoo watching these delightful creatures cavorting in the water. There almost human reactions and interactions make them a joy to watch and the easy way they move from land to water is completely captivating. And though they are hard to find in the wild, if you happen to see them you will be amazed to see that they play and splash in the water in the wild the same way that they do in an artificial habitat.
Behavior and Diet
The North American River Otter is the otter that you will find in the Smokies. They range throughout the lower elevation of the park and inhabit those areas around the various creeks and rivers. The river otter lives in a family unit consisting of the mother and her offspring, until the offspring become mature. The adult male river otter also lives in social groups of other males and there have been sightings of some of these groups numbering more than 15 in the wild.
It is this social structure that produces the playfulness that you see in the river otter. Their play as young – learning how to swim and hunt – is carried over into adulthood and is evident in the wallows that they make as they slide down into the water to swim and splash with each other. The wallow is the easiest way to find a group of otters. If you are roaming through the mountains and you see a wallowed down area near the river bank that is devoid of grass and looks like it would be fun to slide down, you have probably just found one of the play areas of a romp of North American River Otters.
River otters eat the small aquatic and amphibious animals that live in and around rivers. In the Smokies, that means that throughout the year these graceful creatures feast on trout and rock bass, on salamanders and frogs. Otters hunt in the water for their prey. They swim through the water and after spying something that looks particularly good to eat, they use their tail to produce a surge of speed. They catch their meal and then roll over on their back in the water to eat their newest catch.
The river otter had almost been moved out of the Smokies altogether and then in the early 1990s, the Park Service began to reintroduce otters to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These otters were placed in areas where the rangers knew they would find plenty of food and have the best chance for reproducing and growing their numbers. Since the first reintroduction, the numbers of river otters in the Smokies of doubled several times. The park service anticipates that these thriving creatures have rediscovered their home in the southern Appalachians.
The North American Beaver is a large rodent, one of the largest in the Smoky Mountains, that spends most of its time in the water, building dams to change the course of the water systems to establish homes for it and its young. While they are mostly nocturnal, it is possible to see the North American Beaver around the GSMNP right before dawn and right after sunset.
Behavior and Habitat
Of course, one of the easiest ways to spot a beaver is to look for a beaver dam and for the trees that have been felled by beavers in the park. The beaver dam is a conglomeration of logs, twigs, mud and sticks that is designed to back the water up and make the water around the beaver lodge deep enough to keep it from freezing during winter. As the water levels rise, it floods the forest land around the river behind the dam. This flooded area gives the beaver access to its favorite foods: leaves, buds and the inner bark of young trees.
The beaver lives in small family groups and they work together to construct their dams. Beavers, unlike most animals, mate for life and their young – which are known as kits – stay with their parents for around two years. Beaver dams and the ponds that they form have been shown to have beneficial effects on the other plants and animals that are around them. For instance, beavers have been shown to have a beneficial effect on many bird species by providing water and areas for waterbirds to find food and the fact that some of the young trees get felled by the beavers means that older trees will have the ability to produce a lush canopy for homes for birds.
In the Smokies
Though they are hard to find, there are plenty of beavers in the Smokies. From Cades Cove to Cataloochee you will see the effects on beavers in the National Park and you will possibly get to see them building their dams in and around streams and rivers in the park as well. When you cross the bridge in Cades Cove – the one that is almost at the halfway point – you will see plenty of trees that have been downed by beavers in the wild. On both sides of the bridge there are trees that have the tell-tale bite marks from the North American Beaver.
And if you are looking for a little more up close look at the beaver hike the area between the two crossover roads in the Cades Cove. In the center of this area there is a good sized beaver dam on a small creek that has flooded a good portion of the area. And while this is not a deep beaver dam it is a very successful one that has opened up this area for a more diverse set of species to inhabit. This is only one of the advantages to having beavers in the park. Though they are part of the rodent family, they are certainly not rodent in nature.
When you walk trails in the lower elevations of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park you are bound to see Chipmunks. These furry, striped members of the squirrel family have fascinated people for thousands of years with their antics as the frisk about the Smoky Mountains. The term chipmunk comes from the Odawa word Ajidamoo which translates to “one who descends trees headlong.” This of course is a reference to the fact that chipmunks are adept enough at climbing that the come down the tree the same way the go up: face first.
Behavior and Diet
Chipmunks live, primarily, in deciduous wooded areas. This is especially true of the GSMNP where the chipmunk can range across all the lower elevations of the park. In the Smokies, no bulb, nut, fruit, seed, green plant, insect or bird egg is safe from these voracious eaters. During the day, the chipmunk spends almost all of its waking hours foraging for food. Running from tree to tree and digging in the soft soil looking for food. The chipmunk will store the food it finds in its cheeks and then eat it at a later time.
Though you will see the chipmunk racing from tree to tree in the National Park, they actually make their homes in burrows in the ground. These burrows are lined with small rocks and other detritus that the chipmunk finds to make it more difficult for predators to see. The live alone until mating season. After mating the female will have litters of 3 to 5 young. Chipmunks have two mating seasons a year and during the mating season you will hear them chattering to each other throughout the forest.
The chipmunk has many natural predators in the Smokies: foxes, raccoon, weasels, snakes, hawks and other birds of prey all keep an eye out for the unguarded chipmunk as a quick source of protein. The chipmunk uses its speed and ability to climb to stay out of the reach of the various enemies that it has in the park.
Where to Find Chipmunks
Again, the best place to find a chipmunk is in the lower elevations of the park. At dawn and dusk, you will see them scurrying from their burrows looking for food. But, throughout the day you will find chipmunks out, looking for food. They always seem to be on a mission and they are skittish creatures. If you happen to see one, stay back and enjoy the show as they scurry from point to point along the trail. You will also see chipmunks in the picnic areas of the National Park. And though they would be happy to take food from you, remember that feeding animals in the GSMNP is strictly prohibited and bad for the animals.