IUCN Otter Specialist Group . . . leading global otter conservation Last Update: Tuesday January 3, 2012
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Questions and Answers: In-Depth Responses

What year was the lontra (New World) vs. lutra (Old World) distinction accepted by scientists and researchers?

Diane Tomecek, Denver, Colorado, USA, 1 October 2011

Response from Lesley Wright

The genus Lontra was suggested for the new world otters in 1843, but this did not 'stick' - various other species names were in use during the 19th century, and for most of the 20th century all the otters in the Americas (apart from the sea otter and giant otter) were clasified as Lutra.  In 1972 and 1987, van Zyll de Jong carefully examined the morphology of all the northern otter species and in both papers concluded that the old and new world otters were separate genuses, but even in 1998, Lariviere still commented that despite this Lontra was rarely used.

The turning point came in 1998 when Koepfli and Wayne's genetic work clearly showed that new world and old wold otters were separate enough to be considered different genuses, and the IUCN/SSC Red List changed its designation at that time.  The change then slowly swept through and today it is rare (but not unknown e.g in some zoos) to still see the American species called Lutra.

So in brief, the New World Lutras became Lontras in 1998 but it took about ten years to become the normal usage.

  • Koepfli, K.-P. and Wayne, R.K. (1998). Phylogenetic Relationships of Otters (Carnivora: Mustelidae) based on Mitochondrial b Sequences.  Journal of Zoology, 246: 401-416
  • Lariviere, S. and Walton, L.R. (1998). Lontra canadensis Mammalian Species, 587: 1-8
  • van Zyll de Jong, C.J. (1972).  A Systematic Review of the Nearctic and Neotropical River Otters (Genus Lutra, Mustelidae, Carnivora). Life Sciences Contributions, Royal Ontario Museum 80: 1-104.
  • van Zyll de Jong, C.G. (1987). A Phylogenetic Study of the Lutrinae (Carnivora: Mustelidae) using morphological data.  Canadian Journal of Zoology, 65: 2536 - 2544

Lesley Wright

Response provided 2 October 2011