Everybody knows sea otters. Loves them. Videos of pairs holding paws and moms grooming pups on their tummies go viral. The year Luna arrived at Shedd as a tiny rescued pup, she appeared (deservedly) on two lists of cutest animals in the world. But Luna’s role at Shedd, and that of the other five sea otters, is conservation ambassador. Sea otters face increasing threats from climate change, and they’re only an oil spill away from widescale disaster. As goes the health of this smallest of marine mammals, so goes the health of one of the most productive marine ecosystems on Earth. Learn more!
1. Sure sea otters are a riot to watch, but do you know why they’re so frenetic?
Sea otters’ success at foraging depends on bursts of hyperactivity, extreme curiosity and remarkable dexterity with those mitt-like front paws. Remember, they need 10 to 15 pounds of food every day to fuel their high metabolisms. Their natural high-energy attributes enable them to find crustaceans, clams, urchins and other bottom-dwelling prey and extricate the juicy, meaty parts from shells or exoskeletons (which can then be used as playthings).
2. Whatcha got up your sleeve, sea otter?
Sea otters are among the few mammals that use tools. Floating on its back, a sea otter balances a rock on its chest and pounds a mussel or clam against it to crack the shell. A good pounding rock is handy to keep around, so an otter tucks it into the pocket of loose skin under either of its arms. It’s also a good place to stash lunch leftovers (or toys our trainers want to put away).
3. It’s not all fun and games: sea otters as environmental stewards.
Sea otters are a keystone species. The keystone at the crown of an arch holds all the other stones in place. Likewise, sea otters play a disproportionately large role in the health of their nearshore ecosystem. Here’s how it works: Sea otters eat sea urchins and other invertebrates that graze on giant kelp. They also eat crabs that prey on the snails that control the algae that grow amid eel grasses. If sea otters disappeared, it would all fall apart. Urchins would strip the kelp beds and algae would smother the eel grasses—both habitats that many species depend on for food, shelter and nurseries.
4. The thickest fur in the world won’t protect you from an oil spill.
Instead of blubber, sea otters, which are members of the sleek, skinny, furry weasel family, have the densest fur in the animal kingdom: up to 1 million hairs per square inch of skin. The fur is a combination of long guard hairs and shorter bundles of woolly underfur honeycombed with millions of tiny air pockets that hold in body heat.
To keep the body heat in and the cold water out, the fur must be meticulously groomed. When crude oil mats the fur, it’s no longer waterproof, and the otter dies from exposure to cold seawater. The risk of oil spills from Pacific coast tanker traffic is an ongoing threat to sea otters.
5. Stranded sea otter pups need homes.
The second thing you notice about Shedd’s rescued sea otter pups—after you stop cooing over how cute they are—is that some arrived very small and helpless. Over the course of eight months, pups learn everything—swimming, grooming, diving, foraging, cracking clamshells, evading predators—from their mothers. During rehabilitation, when people take over the mom job, the otters become acclimated to humans. After that, they cannot safely be returned to the ocean. They need new homes.
Shedd Aquarium is one of just a few U.S. aquariums with the expertise and facilities to provide lifetime care to stranded and orphaned sea otter pups. Right now we’re home to five rescued sea otters, including Kiana, from Alaska’s waters, and Luna, Ellie and two not-yet-named rescued male pups from the endangered southern population in California. A sixth sea otter, Yaku, who came to us from the Seattle Aquarium in 2000, is the offspring of an animal rescued as a pup after the Exxon Valdez oil spill and another aquarium-raised orphan.
The sea otters at Shedd bring all of us a lot of joy, whether they’re tearing apart a specially made fish-frosted “cake” or taking a rest floating side by side. They’ve got a high “awwwww” factor along with compelling histories. You can make a difference for these six and their counterparts in the wild—by visiting Shedd.
Your admission or membership helps us provide top-quality care—including several tons of restaurant-grade seafood a year—to the otters. It ensures that we’re ready to work around the clock to help a fuzzy little orphaned pup survive. And it enables us to partner with other aquariums to help sea otters in the wild.
So , and bring your friends—you can help raise their awareness about sea otters too.
—Karen Furnweger, web editor
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