I was asked recently, “What’s your favorite animal?” When I answered that it’s the sea otter, nobody believed me because I’ve never written about them in this column, despite more than 10 years of opportunities.
That changes now.
Sea otters are among the smallest marine mammals, but the heaviest member of the weasel family with most weighing in at 50-70 pounds. Unlike other marine mammals, sea otters don’t have any blubber to keep them warm, but rely on their fur — the densest of any animal with an estimated million hairs per square inch. Sea otters must groom their fur to keep it clean and functional. They rub their paws on their fur to fluff it up, blow air into it to add to its insulating properties, remove loose fur, squeeze water out of it and untangle knots. Their extreme flexibility and loose skin allow them to reach every part of their body with mouth and paws in order to care for their coats. The twisting, rolling and turning in the water to groom make use of the same movements that they use in play, and sea otters are exceptionally playful animals.
Even with a luxurious coat, sea otters must eat a lot of food to generate enough energy to stay warm. They consume roughly a third of their body weight each day by feasting on over a hundred different types of prey.
Unlike other marine mammals, they catch fish with their forepaws, not their mouths. Sea otters turn boulders over on the sea floor to find food, and use tools to help them crack open the tough shells of many prey items. Lying on their backs at the surface, they use their own abdomen as a table, cracking urchins and other shellfish open with rocks.
Many sea otters carry a rock with them, and some keep a favorite rock for years. When not in use, they store it in a pouch-like portion of the armpit. They use that same loose pouch of skin to store food.
They often lie on their backs in the ocean with their feet aimed skyward. Mothers cradle their young on their bellies while in this position, as they are life rafts for their babies for many months after giving birth, usually to a single pup.
Sometimes, sea otters tie themselves to kelp to keep themselves from drifting away during sleep. The kelp is helpful to the otters, who return the favor by keeping sea urchin population levels low enough to prevent the urchins from decimating the kelp by eating it. Even sweeter, sleeping sea otters will hold hands (forepaws) with each other so they won’t drift apart.
There are plenty of justifications for sea otters deserving my “favorite animal” designation, but logic does not play a large role.
The honest reason that I like them is simply that the heart wants what the heart wants. To me, they are so charming and adorable that I think judging cuteness on a scale of one to sea otter is the only sensible approach.
Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, Certified Professional Dog Trainer, author, and an Adjunct Faculty in NAU’s Department of Biological Sciences.
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