The sea otter (Enhydra lutris) is a marine mammal native to the coasts of the northern and eastern North Pacific Ocean. Adult sea otters typically weigh between 14 and 45 kg (30 and 100 lb), making them the heaviest members of the weasel family, but among the smallest marine mammals. Unlike most marine mammals, the sea otter's primary form of insulation is an exceptionally thick coat of fur, the densest in the animal kingdom. Although it can walk on land, the sea otter is capable of living exclusively in the ocean.
The sea otter inhabits nearshore environments, where it dives to the sea floor to
Sea otters, whose numbers were once estimated at 150,000–300,000, were hunted extensively for their fur between 1741 and 1911, and the world population fell to 1,000–2,000 individuals living in a fraction of their historic range. A subsequent international ban on hunting, sea otter conservation efforts, and reintroduction programs into previously populated areas have contributed to numbers rebounding, and the species occupies about two-thirds of its former range. The recovery of the sea otter is considered an important success in marine conservation, although populations in the Aleutian Islands and California have recently declined or have plateaued at depressed levels. For these reasons, the sea otter remains classified as an endangered species.
The sea otter is the heaviest (the
|Cladogram showing relationships between sea otters and other otters|
The first scientific description of the sea otter is contained in the field notes of
Three subspecies of the sea otter are recognized with distinct geographical distributions. Enhydra lutris lutris (
The sea otter is one of the smallest marine mammal species, but it is the heaviest mustelid. Male sea otters usually weigh 22 to 45 kg (49 to 99 lb) and are 1.2 to 1.5 m (3 ft 11 in to 4 ft 11 in) in length, though specimens up to 54 kg (119 lb) have been recorded. Females are smaller, weighing 14 to 33 kg (31 to 73 lb) and measuring 1.0 to 1.4 m (3 ft 3 in to 4 ft 7 in) in length. For its size, the male otter's baculum is very large, massive and bent upwards, measuring 150 mm (5+7⁄8 in) in length and 15 mm (9⁄16 in) at the base.
Unlike most other marine mammals, the sea otter has no
The sea otter displays numerous adaptations to its marine environment. The nostrils and small ears can close. The hind feet, which provide most of its propulsion in swimming, are long, broadly flattened, and fully webbed. The fifth digit on each hind foot is longest, facilitating swimming while on its back, but making walking difficult. The tail is fairly short, thick, slightly flattened, and muscular. The front paws are short with retractable claws, with tough pads on the palms that enable gripping slippery prey. The bones show osteosclerosis, increasing their density to reduce buoyancy.
The sea otter presents an insight into the evolutionary process of the mammalian invasion of the aquatic environment, which has occurred numerous times over the course of mammalian evolution. Having only returned to the sea about 3 million years ago, sea otters represent a snapshot at the earliest point of the transition from fur to blubber. In sea otters, fur is still advantageous, given their small nature and division of lifetime between the aquatic and terrestrial environments. However, as sea otters evolve and adapt to spending more and more of their lifetimes in the sea, the convergent evolution of blubber suggests that the reliance on fur for insulation would be replaced by a dependency on blubber. This is particularly true due to the diving nature of the sea otter; as dives become lengthier and deeper, the air layer's ability to retain heat or buoyancy decreases, while blubber remains efficient at both of those functions. Blubber can also additionally serve as an energy source for deep dives, which would most likely prove advantageous over fur in the evolutionary future of sea otters.
The sea otter propels itself underwater by moving the rear end of its body, including its tail and hind feet, up and down,
Long, highly sensitive
An adult's 32
The sea otter is diurnal. It has a period of foraging and eating in the morning, starting about an hour before sunrise, then rests or sleeps in mid-day. Foraging resumes for a few hours in the afternoon and subsides before sunset, and a third foraging period may occur around midnight. Females with pups appear to be more inclined to feed at night. Observations of the amount of time a sea otter must spend each day foraging range from 24 to 60%, apparently depending on the availability of food in the area.
Sea otters spend much of their time grooming, which consists of cleaning the fur, untangling knots, removing loose fur, rubbing the fur to squeeze out water and introduce air, and blowing air into the fur. To casual observers, it appears as if the animals are scratching, but they are not known to have
The sea otter hunts in short dives, often to the
Under each foreleg, the sea otter has a loose pouch of skin that extends across the chest. In this pouch (preferentially the left one), the animal stores collected food to bring to the surface. This pouch also holds a rock, unique to the otter, that is used to break open shellfish and clams. At the surface, the sea otter eats while floating on its back, using its forepaws to tear food apart and bring it to its mouth. It can chew and swallow small mussels with their shells, whereas large mussel shells may be twisted apart. It uses its lower incisor teeth to access the meat in shellfish. To eat large sea urchins, which are mostly covered with spines, the sea otter bites through the underside where the spines are shortest, and licks the soft contents out of the urchin's shell.
The sea otter's use of rocks when hunting and feeding makes it one of the few mammal species to use tools. To open hard shells, it may pound its prey with both paws against a rock on its chest. To pry an abalone off its rock, it hammers the abalone shell using a large stone, with observed rates of 45 blows in 15 seconds. Releasing an abalone, which can cling to rock with a force equal to 4,000 times its own body weight, requires multiple dives.
Although each adult and independent juvenile forages alone, sea otters tend to rest together in single-sex groups called rafts. A raft typically contains 10 to 100 animals, with male rafts being larger than female ones. The largest raft ever seen contained over 2000 sea otters. To keep from drifting out to sea when resting and eating, sea otters may wrap themselves in kelp.
A male sea otter is most likely to mate if he maintains a breeding territory in an area that is also favored by females. As autumn is the peak breeding season in most areas, males typically defend their territory only from spring to autumn. During this time, males patrol the boundaries of their territories to exclude other males, although actual fighting is rare. Adult females move freely between male territories, where they outnumber adult males by an average of five to one. Males that do not have territories tend to congregate in large, male-only groups, and swim through female areas when searching for a mate.
The species exhibits a variety of vocal behaviors. The cry of a pup is often compared to that of a
Reproduction and life cycle
Sea otters are
Births occur year-round, with peaks between May and June in northern populations and between January and March in southern populations.
Birth usually takes place in the water and typically produces a single pup weighing 1.4 to 2.3 kilograms (3 lb 1 oz to 5 lb 1 oz). Twins occur in 2% of births; however, usually only one pup survives. At birth, the eyes are open, ten teeth are visible, and the pup has a thick coat of baby fur. Mothers have been observed to lick and fluff a newborn for hours; after grooming, the pup's fur retains so much air, the pup floats like a cork and cannot dive. The fluffy baby fur is replaced by adult fur after about 13 weeks.
Females perform all tasks of feeding and raising offspring, and have occasionally been observed caring for orphaned pups. Much has been written about the level of devotion of sea otter mothers for their pups – a mother gives her infant almost constant attention, cradling it on her chest away from the cold water and attentively grooming its fur. When foraging, she leaves her pup floating on the water, sometimes wrapped in kelp to keep it from floating away; if the pup is not sleeping, it cries loudly until she returns. Mothers have been known to carry their pups for days after the pups' deaths.
Females become sexually mature at around three or four years of age and males at around five; however, males often do not successfully breed until a few years later.
Population and distribution
Sea otters live in coastal waters 15 to 23 metres (49 to 75 ft) deep,
The sea otter population is thought to have once been 150,000 to 300,000,
In about two-thirds of its former range, the species is at varying levels of recovery, with high population densities in some areas and threatened populations in others. Sea otters currently have stable populations in parts of the Russian east coast, Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, and California, with reports of recolonizations in Mexico and Japan. Population estimates made between 2004 and 2007 give a worldwide total of approximately 107,000 sea otters.
Adele Ogden wrote in The California Sea Otter Trade that sea otter were hunted "from Yezo northeastward past the Kuril Group and Kamchatka to the Aleutian Chain". "Yezo" refers to the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan; the only confirmed sea otter population in Japanese territory is on the coast surrounding the town of Erimo, Hokkaido.
Currently, the most stable and secure part of the sea otter's range is
Along the North American coast south of Alaska, the sea otter's range is discontinuous. A remnant population survived off Vancouver Island into the 20th century, but it died out despite the 1911 international protection treaty, with the last sea otter taken near
Alaska is the central area of the sea otter's range. In 1973, the population in Alaska was estimated at between 100,000 and 125,000 animals. By 2006, though, the Alaska population had fallen to an estimated 73,000 animals. A massive decline in sea otter populations in the Aleutian Islands accounts for most of the change; the cause of this decline is not known, although orca predation is suspected. The sea otter population in Prince William Sound was also hit hard by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which killed thousands of sea otters in 1989.
In 1969 and 1970, 59 sea otters were translocated from
In Washington, sea otters are found almost exclusively on the outer coasts. They can swim as close as six feet off shore along the Olympic coast. Reported sightings of sea otters in the San Juan Islands and Puget Sound almost always turn out to be North American river otters, which are commonly seen along the seashore. However, biologists have confirmed isolated sightings of sea otters in these areas since the mid-1990s.
The last native sea otter in Oregon was probably shot and killed in 1906. In 1970 and 1971, a total of 95 sea otters were transplanted from
The historic population of California sea otters was estimated at 16,000 before the fur trade decimated the population, leading to their assumed extinction. Today's population of California sea otters are the descendants of a single colony of about 50 sea otters located near
Sea otters were once numerous in
In the late 1980s, the USFWS relocated about 140 southern sea otters to San Nicolas Island in southern California, in the hope of establishing a reserve population should the mainland be struck by an oil spill. To the surprise of biologists, the majority of the San Nicolas sea otters swam back to the mainland. Another group of twenty swam 74 miles (119 km) north to San Miguel Island, where they were captured and removed. By 2005, only 30 sea otters remained at San Nicolas, although they were slowly increasing as they thrived on the abundant prey around the island. The plan that authorized the translocation program had predicted the carrying capacity would be reached within five to 10 years. The spring 2016 count at San Nicolas Island was 104 sea otters, continuing a 5-year positive trend of over 12% per year. Sea otters were observed twice in Southern California in 2011, once near Laguna Beach and once at Zuniga Point Jetty, near San Diego. These are the first documented sightings of otters this far south in 30 years.
When the USFWS implemented the translocation program, it also attempted, in 1986, to implement "zonal management" of the Californian population. To manage the competition between sea otters and fisheries, it declared an "otter-free zone" stretching from
Although the southern sea otter's range has continuously expanded from the remnant population of about 50 individuals in
For southern sea otters to be considered for removal from threatened species listing, the
Historian Adele Ogden described sea otters are particularly abundant in "Lower California", now the
High energetic requirements of sea otter metabolism require them to consume at least 20% of their body weight a day. Surface swimming and foraging are major factors in their high energy expenditure due to drag on the surface of the water when swimming and the thermal heat loss from the body during deep dives when foraging. Sea otter muscles are specially adapted to generate heat without physical activity.
Sea otters consume over 100 prey species.
In a few northern areas, fish are also eaten. In studies performed at
The individuals within a particular area often differ in their foraging methods and prey types, and tend to follow the same patterns as their mothers. The diet of local populations also changes over time, as sea otters can significantly deplete populations of highly preferred prey such as large sea urchins, and prey availability is also affected by other factors such as fishing by humans. Sea otters can thoroughly remove abalone from an area except for specimens in deep rock crevices, however, they never completely wipe out a prey species from an area. A 2007 Californian study demonstrated, in areas where food was relatively scarce, a wider variety of prey was consumed. Surprisingly, though, the diets of individuals were more specialized in these areas than in areas where food was plentiful.
As a keystone species
Sea otters are a classic example of a
Reintroduction of sea otters to British Columbia has led to a dramatic improvement in the health of coastal ecosystems,
Leading mammalian predators of this species include orcas and sea lions, and bald eagles may grab pups from the surface of the water. Young predators may kill an otter and not eat it. On land, young sea otters may face attack from bears and coyotes. In California, great white sharks are their primary predator but there is no evidence that the sharks eat them.
Relationship with humans
Sea otters have the thickest fur of any mammal, which makes them a common target for many hunters. Archaeological evidence indicates that for thousands of years,
In the early 18th century, Russians began to hunt sea otters in the Kuril Islands
Russian fur-hunting expeditions soon depleted the sea otter populations in the Commander Islands, and by 1745, they began to move on to the
Other nations joined in the hunt in the south. Along the coasts of what is now Mexico and
Russian hunting expanded to the south, initiated by American ship captains, who subcontracted Russian supervisors and Aleut hunters in what are now Washington, Oregon, and California. Between 1803 and 1846, 72 American ships were involved in the otter hunt in California, harvesting an estimated 40,000 skins and tails, compared to only 13 ships of the Russian-American Company, which reported 5,696 otter skins taken between 1806 and 1846. In 1812, the Russians founded an agricultural settlement at what is now Fort Ross in northern California, as their southern headquarters.
Eventually, sea otter populations became so depleted, commercial hunting was no longer viable. It had stopped in the Aleutian Islands, by 1808, as a conservation measure imposed by the Russian-American Company. Further restrictions were ordered by the company in 1834.
Recovery and conservation
During the 20th century, sea otter numbers rebounded in about two-thirds of their historic range, a recovery considered one of the greatest successes in marine conservation.
The most significant threat to sea otters is oil spills, to which they are particularly vulnerable, since they rely on their fur to keep warm. When their fur is soaked with oil, it loses its ability to retain air, and the animals can quickly die from hypothermia. The liver, kidneys, and lungs of sea otters also become damaged after they inhale oil or ingest it when grooming. The Exxon Valdez oil spill of 24 March 1989 killed thousands of sea otters in Prince William Sound, and as of 2006, the lingering oil in the area continues to affect the population. Describing the public sympathy for sea otters that developed from media coverage of the event, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson wrote:
As a playful, photogenic, innocent bystander, the sea otter epitomized the role of victim ... cute and frolicsome sea otters suddenly in distress, oiled, frightened, and dying, in a losing battle with the oil.
The small geographic ranges of the sea otter populations in California, Washington, and British Columbia mean a single major spill could be catastrophic for that state or province. Prevention of oil spills and preparation to rescue otters if one happens is a major focus for conservation efforts. Increasing the size and range of sea otter populations would also reduce the risk of an oil spill wiping out a population. However, because of the species' reputation for depleting shellfish resources, advocates for commercial, recreational, and subsistence shellfish harvesting have often opposed allowing the sea otter's range to increase, and there have even been instances of fishermen and others illegally killing them.
In the Aleutian Islands, a massive and unexpected disappearance of sea otters has occurred in recent decades. In the 1980s, the area was home to an estimated 55,000 to 100,000 sea otters, but the population fell to around 6,000 animals by 2000. The most widely accepted, but still controversial, hypothesis is that killer whales have been eating the otters. The pattern of disappearances is consistent with a rise in predation, but there has been no direct evidence of orcas preying on sea otters to any significant extent.
Another area of concern is California, where recovery began to fluctuate or decline in the late 1990s.
Sea otter habitat is preserved through several
Some of the sea otter's preferred prey species, particularly abalone, clams, and crabs, are also food sources for humans. In some areas, massive declines in shellfish harvests have been blamed on the sea otter, and intense public debate has taken place over how to manage the competition between sea otters and humans for seafood.
The debate is complicated because sea otters have sometimes been held responsible for declines of shellfish stocks that were more likely caused by
Many facets of the interaction between sea otters and the human economy are not as immediately felt. Sea otters have been credited with contributing to the
Roles in human cultures
For many maritime indigenous cultures throughout the North Pacific, especially the
Among the Ainu, the otter is portrayed as an occasional messenger between humans and the creator. The sea otter is a recurring figure in Ainu folklore. A major Ainu epic, the Kutune Shirka, tells the tale of wars and struggles over a golden sea otter. Versions of a widespread Aleut legend tell of lovers or despairing women who plunge into the sea and become otters. These links have been associated with the many human-like behavioral features of the sea otter, including apparent playfulness, strong mother-pup bonds and tool use, yielding to ready anthropomorphism. The beginning of commercial exploitation had a great impact on the human, as well as animal, populations. The Ainu and Aleuts have been displaced or their numbers are dwindling, while the coastal tribes of North America, where the otter is in any case greatly depleted, no longer rely as intimately on sea mammals for survival.
Since the mid-1970s, the beauty and charisma of the species have gained wide appreciation, and the sea otter has become an icon of environmental conservation. The round, expressive face and soft, furry body of the sea otter are depicted in a wide variety of souvenirs, postcards, clothing, and stuffed toys.
Aquariums and zoos
Sea otters can do well in captivity, and are featured in over 40 public aquariums and zoos. The Seattle Aquarium became the first institution to raise sea otters from conception to adulthood with the birth of Tichuk in 1979, followed by three more pups in the early 1980s. In 2007, a YouTube video of two sea otters holding paws drew 1.5 million viewers in two weeks, and had over 22 million views as of July 2022[update]. Filmed five years previously at the Vancouver Aquarium, it was YouTube's most popular animal video at the time, although it has since been surpassed. The lighter-colored otter in the video is Nyac, a survivor of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Nyac died in September 2008, at the age of 20. Milo, the darker one, died of lymphoma in January 2012.
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