There is lots to love about sea otters! While their brown furry bodies and tiny dexterous paws make us all squeal, they need more than our eyes and our hearts: sea otters need our help to protect their coastal habitats and the species at large from extinction. How do we accomplish such a tall task? One otter pup at a time!
What is Sea Otter Surrogacy?
The Sea Otter Surrogacy Program was developed and pioneered by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, an accredited Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) institution, which has successfully released rescued sea otters for four decades. Within the program, non-releasable female otters raise rescued pups for return to the wild.
This surrogacy program can give orphaned sea otter pups a second chance at life in the wild, and help the wild population recover to its historical levels in California.
Most recently, Shedd became a home for two female otters, Suri and Willow, that may eventually be surrogate moms. When they’re ready, they’ll return to Monterey Bay Aquarium or its new surrogate program partner, Aquarium of the Pacific, to support the work to return orphaned otters back to the wild.
What Skills are Important for Wild Otters?
In the wild, sea otter pups typically stay with their mother for about six months until they develop survival skills. Mothers will teach their pups how to groom their dense fur, which is critical to keep them warm in the chilly Pacific Ocean. Sea otters have the densest fur of any animal, with about 1 million hairs per square inch, and they spend a lot of time maintaining it.
Mothers also show their pups how to dive to forage for food. Sea otters can eat 25 percent of their body weight each day and can occasionally dive up to 250 feet deep to dig for clams or search for crustaceans in crevices. To eat that food, sea otter moms will show their pups how to use tools. They’ll often use a rock or another shelled food item to crack open hard-shelled prey.
Orphaned pups need to learn these same skills from a surrogate mother before being returned to the wild. To best prepare Suri and Willow to take on future roles as mothers, Shedd’s expert animal care team will encourage them to practice those wild skills like diving and foraging by scattering and hiding food throughout their habitat. The team will also encourage the otters to retrieve objects, much like retrieving and carrying a pup.
How Impactful is the Surrogacy Program?
A 2019 study in “Oryx — The International Journal of Conservation”, led by Monterey Bay Aquarium, followed 37 orphaned pups that were raised by surrogate mothers and released between 2002 and 2016 in Elkhorn Slough, a coastal wetland near Monterey. It showed that surrogate-reared sea otters survive at a rate comparable to that of their wild counterparts and they contributed to population growth in the Monterey Bay coastal estuaries where they were released.
Other studies show that there is potential for sea otters to reshape, revitalize and restore coastal habitats where populations were removed during the fur trade in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Why are Sea Otters Ecologically Important?
Sea otters are listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). And although they are federally protected, all sea otters remain at risk.
Sea otters are a keystone species, meaning that they serve as the “backbone” of an ecosystem and are a good indicator of ocean health. Specifically, otters keep kelp forests healthy by eating sea urchins and other invertebrates that graze on giant kelp. In coastal wetlands, they’ll eat crabs that prey on sea slugs, which in turn feed on the algae that grows on eel grasses. If sea otters disappeared, their ecosystems would become unbalanced and unhealthy. 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.
How Can I Help Sea Otters?
Each of Shedd’s sea otters eats 25 pounds of sustainable, restaurant quality seafood per day. Shedd is committed to supporting sustainable fisheries — to protect the wild counterparts of the animals in our care, including sea otters, and ensure future generations of humans have access to healthy, abundant seafood.
Furthermore, Shedd’s Animal Response Team is ready to help wildlife in need across the globe, including travelling to rescue and rehabilitate sea otter pups in need. A visit to Shedd, the purchase of a membership or a donation would not only help us sustain our resident sea otters, and 32,000 other animals, but also fulfill our mission to spark curiosity, compassion and conservation for the aquatic animal world.