Interesting Facts About One of the Ocean’s Smartest Animals: Sea Otters

Interesting Facts About One of the Ocean’s Smartest Animals: Sea Otters

Sea otters are a popular marine mammal, with live camera feeds and plush toys aplenty. This adorable species has been slowly recovering after their population dipped dangerously low due to demand for their fur. This is good news, as sea otters are truly a unique breed that benefits our environment. Here are some interesting tidbits about them.

They’ve Used Tools for at Least Thousands of Years

One of an otter’s favorite treats is delectable seafood contained within shells. To access this food, they need to get those shells out of the way, and they often use rocks to do so. A joint study involving the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the University of California, Santa Cruz, was able to pinpoint the marks left behind on rocks used by otters. The team also observed how the animals broke mussel shells, noticing patterns on the shells themselves. The otters’ paw movements when breaking them were similar, too, showing they’ve mastered this art over the years.

So how many years have they been doing this? Another study by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute investigating tool use in marine mammals found that this behavior has likely been going on for thousands, if not millions of years.

They Take Steps to Keep Close When They Sleep

When otters snooze, they make sure they don’t drift apart. How otterly romantic. They may do this by holding each other’s “hands” or, more likely, by looking out for other members of their “raft.” That’s a group of resting otters, which will often use seaweed to stay connected. The Seattle Aquarium says members of the raft will keep eyes and ears on each other and will maintain casual body contact to stick together.

They Have Lucious Locks

If you thought 80s hair was big, you haven’t seen anything yet. Otters may actually give glam rock hair… a bad name. (Sorry, Bon Jovi.) This is because they have such thick fur that each square inch of their body contains 850,000 to 1 million individual hairs. That gives them the thickest fur of any mammal.

Their Fur Has Some Interesting Properties

Thickness isn’t the only fascinating thing about their fur. The fur of otter babies is so dense that it actually stops them from diving. It’s too buoyant. That does mean, though, that when their mothers head down to find food, they can leave their babies floating on the surface because they can’t sink. Once they get their adult fur, it comes with its own interesting properties. Those include natural oils that help keep fur water-resistant. During grooming, which they do for a good chunk of their day, their fur also absorbs air to keep them warm. That means if they get too dirty, they have trouble keeping their internal temperature up.

They Have Their Own Awareness Week

It’s unlikely that someone would be unaware of such a smart creature with hair to die for, but there’s a yearly effort to make sure everyone thinks about sea otters. Sea Otter Awareness Week is held during the last full week in September each year and is sponsored by Defenders of Wildlife, Sea Otter Savvy, and the California Department of Parks and Recreation. The goal is to get government agencies and other organizations to share stories, science, and media about sea otters that help promote better understanding of the species, their ecological importance, and the challenges they face.

They’re the Tiniest Mammal in These Waters

Most marine mammals are a bit on the large side, so it may not be too surprising that the sea otter is the smallest marine mammal in North America. The southern subspecies is a bit smaller than its northern cousins, with females tipping the scales at about 50 pounds and males weighing up to 70 pounds. Up north, those figures are are 70 pounds and 100 pounds, respectively. The southern crew lives around California, while those in Washington and Alaska are considered northern.

Most Live in Alaska

While there are populations along the California coast and the Washington coast – and there could one day be a reintroduction in Oregon – the majority of sea otters live further north. In all, 90% of the world’s sea otters call Alaska’s waters home.

They Take Snacking Pretty Seriously

If you feel bad about the occasional food indulgence, just remember, at least you didn’t eat as much as a sea otter. Sea otters eat about 25% of their body weight every day. The menu may include sea urchins, crabs, mussels, clams, and other sea life. The amount of digestion this requires helps them keep their bodies warm. Their whiskers also help them locate food during dives. That’s not the only part of their body that aids in their snacking, though. They have pockets of loose skin under their forearms that they can use for prey storage while they search for more.

They Have Some Impressive Lung Capacity

Want to challenge one of these guys to a breath holding contest? You otter know that’s not a good idea. To help facilitate their dives for food – which may be as deep as 250 feet – sea otters can remain under the surface for up to five minutes. That’s plenty of time to gather lots of snacks in their pockets for later.

They Provide Environmental Benefits

The sea otter’s presence in an ecosystem is also important because they’re a keystone species. As they eat sea urchins and other marine grazers, this in turn provides benefits to kelp forests and seagrass beds. Also, when they dig for food, the disturbance they cause can help seagrass produce sexually instead of asexually, boosting biodiversity. With healthy and thriving plant life, seas are better able to absorb carbon and help address climate change.

This article by Michelle Milliken was first published by The Animal Rescue Site. 

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