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In 2011, a river otter in Florida's Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge attacks and preys on an alligator.

A hungry river otter in Florida's Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge attacks an alligator in the water.

PHOTOGRAPH BY GEOFF WALSH

Jennifer S. Holland

for National Geographic

Published March 6, 2014

We've barely recovered from the snake-eats-croc photos, and now this: Photos reveal a river otter in Florida attacking a young alligator, which it then ripped into for lunch.

The photos, shot in 2011 in Florida's Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge by a visitor named Geoff Walsh, were posted this week on the refuge's Facebook page. Our favorite reptile expert, Terry Phillip, had this initial reaction: "Man, that's a bold and hungry otter! Very cool."

We asked Phillip, of Reptile Gardens in South Dakota and Black Hills Pythons, to tell us more about how such a battle might go down.

In 2011, a river otter in Florida's Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge attacks and preys on an alligator.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GEOFF WALSH

A cute-faced mammal killing a powerful gator? Wildlife is full of surprises. How common might it be for a river otter to take on such an animal?

Otters are voracious predators, close to being apex [top predator] in most places where they live. So anywhere they overlap with gators this would be a pretty common occurrence. Still, this is impressive: That's not a small alligator, probably three or four years old and five feet [1.5 meters] long. If that's a male otter it might be 30 pounds. That's a very bold animal!

A river otter in Florida's Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge attacks and preys on an alligator in 2011.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GEOFF WALSH

How does the otter know to bite the gator behind the head?

It's actually a learned behavior. That otter has probably tried attacking smaller ones and got some bites to learn from. Remember that crocs swing their heads side to side when they fight, so the otter wants to be entirely out of the reptile's strike zone. Mounted on the gator's back with teeth into the neck, that's a smart strategy.

How does the otter actually kill the gator?

It doesn't, not directly. First, that's a pretty hard animal to bite through. The armor on the back is made to deflect bites from other alligators, so it's very tough. Where the otter wins is in energy: The otter has sustainable energy, whereas the gator is like a grenade, with explosive energy that doesn't last long. So the best tactic is to wear the gator out, which only takes a few minutes of thrashing and rolling around. Quite quickly it will be very tired, its muscles filled with lactic acid and no longer functioning. At that point it's almost like it's intoxicated, and the otter can then get it up on shore. The gator dies of lactic acid buildup, not from being eaten. It would take a long time to kill it that way.

A river otter in Florida's Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge attacks and preys on an alligator in 2011.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GEOFF WALSH

So the otter eats its prey alive?

Yeah, once on shore it will rip off pieces of the hide—otters have very sharp teeth—to get to the guts and meat, the good stuff, inside. A lot of parts will end up scattered around. It's like a lion's kill as opposed to a snake's. If there's a mated pair or young otters, they'll get a piece of it, too. It's a good education for otter pups.

What other big animals might an otter eat?

Whatever they can catch and overpower. They are smart, agile, and strong predators. They do eat a lot of amphibians and fish, but they'll also take out sizeable beavers, raccoons, plus snapping turtles, snakes, and small gators. Of course, gators can also eat otters, so it goes both ways!

In 2011, a river otter in Florida's Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge attacks and preys on an alligator.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GEOFF WALSH

And what else might go for a gator?

When they're hatchlings, everything eats them. Large fish, snapping turtles, bird of prey. Bobcats and panthers and black bears can certainly eat young ones. (See video: jaguar attacks caiman.) But once the gators are good-sized, the only predator that will typically beat one is another gator. And, apparently, an otter if it's hungry enough!

Follow Jennifer S. Holland on Twitter.

60 comments
ADVENTURE MAN C.
ADVENTURE MAN C.

Nature is unpredictable!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! God made it that way.

JoJo Bracy
JoJo Bracy

You need to add Ducks and other birds to that list...we had a family of otters wipe out the entire duck population at a local lake.

The otters had to be removed due to the fear of local families that attend the park.

Thomas Drudi
Thomas Drudi

I love seeing the underdog win. If in fact the otter is the underdog here.

Pete Corradino
Pete Corradino

It's certainly bad a** for an otter to take down an alligator but it's not anything new. As an Everglades tour guide I've seen them grab juveniles and crunch them up and eat them. It's brutal. This is a big alligator relative to the size of the otter. They suggest that it's five feet long. But compare it the otter's head. They're about the same size. so unless that's a five foot mega otter, I'd say the gator is closer to 3 feet long. 

Ernesto Gomez
Ernesto Gomez

That proves that being smaller doesn't mean being an easy prey. The same applies to us homo sapiens.

Lindell Bohannon
Lindell Bohannon

Maybe it will be Otters that take over the planet after us. Smart, social, adaptable, and FEARLESS!

M. Chase
M. Chase

I'm not entirely certain how I feel about that.

Theresa Keldsen
Theresa Keldsen

Good, Otters need to be tough in those Florida Swamps, there are all types of things that can eat them, I am glad to see they can eat them back! :P Go otters! LOL

Craig Nordmark
Craig Nordmark

Good strategy for the otter once they learn the trick. Not only do you get a big meal (feed all the relatives!) but you prevent that alligator from eventually trying to eat you (or your offspring) .

joel mickelson
joel mickelson

not over-surprised.  i have a lot of otters around my place, and they are very good hunters, but more fun to watch in the water and snow.  

Sonia Dharni
Sonia Dharni

Never underestimate a cute-faced mammal... No matter how innocent they look.

Luke Hyce
Luke Hyce

The gators and crocs have had some seriously bad luck... first a leopard, then a giant snake, and now an OTTER!? what is this world coming to?

Viviana Biazzo
Viviana Biazzo

That's just amazing.


I saw a few otters in captivity in a wetland centre and never thought they are capable of this.
You just think they are so cute..

Marisol Gs
Marisol Gs

If doesn´t eat..will be eaten...survivence law

geoff walsh
geoff walsh

I took these photos when I visited lake woodruff nature reserve in florida.As I walked along I heard a noise in the mangroves I thought it was the rangers carrying out work there was a lot of splashing so as I walked futher on I thought I would have a look and see what work was being done its then I shouted for my wife to come over and double check what I was watching.we both put our cameras up to start shooting as we watched an otter wrestle with a small alligator,at one point it did look like the otter was trying to wedge the gator under the mangrove roots but the fight carried on we lost track of time watching this but then the otter started to drag the gator further back into the mangroves we lost sight of them so decided to walk futher on to another path in the hope we would see the otter run across but we walked up and down near the mangroves but didn't see anything after about 10 mins looking we heard the sound of something being eaten we listend for a short while but thought if  the otter was eating the gator he would be there for a long time so we decided to carry on with our walk.we couldn't believe what we had just seen and so glad we had our cameras to prove what we had just seen

Donald Lyttle
Donald Lyttle

Poor Alligator, everybody picks on them! Jaguars, pythons, otters, human beings. 

KENNETH LANE
KENNETH LANE

Nature is amazing at times.  Interesting that often the "cute" animals are the most capable killers.  Really messes up the "Disney" mentality of the ignorant.

Melanie Dardik
Melanie Dardik

wuaooooooooooo!i'm impress and so surprise..........go for it though need to feed the young..............survival of the.................

Harinarayan Sreenivasan
Harinarayan Sreenivasan

was it because the otter couldnt find anything else to eat and it was forced to take a huge risk?

Utkan TURGUT
Utkan TURGUT

Being hungry and instinct of life can show us the other face of nature.

Vishal Gupta
Vishal Gupta

Can't see the teeth. Strange snaps of killing. Look like superimposed to me !


Thomas Scott jr.
Thomas Scott jr.

Totally shocking nature. I am in awe of animals with this power. The struggles in nature are so intresting.

Frank Beifus
Frank Beifus

I know one thing, an otter will bite the crap out of you. never  get too close to them in the wild

Rui Silva
Rui Silva

@Zach Bridger  Humans, war, guns, chemical weapons, nuclear weapons rapers, murderers, genocide, pollution of water soil and air (3 things we depend on to survive) - Much scarier things in my opinion...
I never understood, looking outside of the box, how messed up we are...

Craig Nordmark
Craig Nordmark

@Tex Bacalian I think the otter was pretty much in control from the start making a roll tough and not very effective. The otter just rolls with it. Both can hold their breath for a while.

Marju J.
Marju J.

@Harinarayan Sreenivasan  Otter likes risk.

Craig Nordmark
Craig Nordmark

@Harinarayan Sreenivasan Once it learns the trick from attacking smaller gators, the risk is probably minimal. It gains a huge meal and makes the world a safer place for its own young.

geoff walsh
geoff walsh

@Vishal Gupta these photos show what happened I have the raw file and if you look close you can see the teeth

edward teach
edward teach

@Frank Beifus  Sitting quietly on a brushy pond dam deer hunting one time and had 2 of them pop out a few feet away...they headed my way and just about got in my lap.Had a face mask on or they surely would have spotted me.Clucked at them just before they got to me and they turned tail,hit the water and started swimming around in tight circles and cussing me in otterese.

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