Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, August 25, 2023

A little ‘Sunshine’ hits Aquarium’s boys’ club

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 entertained 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 2-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.

Skillful swimmers, the otters frequently dive 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.

“Having a young female come into the romp is the ultimate in changing your vibe. If any of the otters don’t respond as well to Sunshine, we’ll be able to separate them.”

So far, Sunshine’s youthful energy and zeal for interacting with “boomer balls,” ice chips and other items has made her a delight to watch, says animal care specialist Tyler Schneider.

“She’s an active, high-energy otter. She uses everything 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 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, the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s North American River Otter Species Survival Plan managers have long valued them as potential breeding partners.

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 have male otters with good genetics and some of the best facilities in the world to care for North American River Otters. It would be a shame not to give them the opportunity to breed.”

Female North American River Otters give birth to litters of between one and four pups. As adorable as baby otters would be, 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.

View a livestream of River Otter Falls at tnaqua.org/live/river-otter-falls.