Animal of the Month
January 2021
Name: Sea Otter

Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Mustelidae
Subfamily: Lutrinae
Genus: Enhydra
Species: E. lutris
Subspecies: 3 including:
Asia Sea Otter - E. l. lutris
Northern Sea Otter - E. l. kenyoni
Southerm Sea Otter - E. l. nereis

Size: About 4 feet long
Weight: About 65 pounds

Long body covered in thick water-repellant fur, four limbs with webbed paws and a long tail, round head with large nose, sharp teeth, and whiskers.
Color(s): Black or dark brown, with whitish heads and bellies.
Behavior: Aquatic, floats in groups, uses rocks for tools.
Preferred Habitat: Cold coastal waters with kelp forests.
Range: California, Washington, Canada, Alaska, and Russia.
Diet: Clams, mussels, sea urchins and fish.
Lifespan: Up to 23 years in the wild, up to 28 years in captivity.

Status: Endangered.

Have you gone swimming and floated on your back? It can be incredibly relaxing. For the sea otter, floating on your back is a way of life! Sea otters spend most of their time floating in coastal Pacific waters. There are three subspecies of sea otter. Asian sea otters (Enhydra lutris lutris) live off the coast of northern Russia. Northern sea otters (Enhydra lutris kenyoni) are found in Washington State, Canada and Alaska. Southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis) live off the coast of California.

Like river otters, sea otters are members of the weasel family. At about four feet long, Sea otters are the smallest marine mammals in the world. They're covered in thick fur, the thickest of any mammal! This fur traps air, allowing them to stay wet for extended periods while losing little body heat.

While they do occasionally climb onto land to rest or groom, sea otters spend almost their entire lives in the ocean. They prefer coastal waters about 50-75 feet deep and usually stay about two-thirds of a mile from the shore. Sea otters love areas with kelp forests. When not looking for food, they are commonly found floating on their backs in the water. They like to float together in large groups called rafts, which can include hundreds of individuals. The largest-ever recorded raft was made of 2,000 sea otters! Sea otters spend much of their time keeping to themselves, though they do enjoy playing together.

Sea otters live on a varied diet of seafood, namely clams, sea urchins, mus-sels, crabs and fish. They are intelligent creatures, as they will lift rocks underwater to find prey. After making a catch, a sea otter will take a rock and use it as a tool to crack its prey open! The otter will then lie back and use its belly like a table as it eats. Sea otters are incredibly important because they keep sea urchin populations down. This keeps the urchins from eating too much kelp and allows kelp forests to flourish, providing habitat for many species and capturing carbon from the air. While out and about, sea otters have to keep an eye out for a host of predators including orcas, sea lions, bears and coyotes.

Male sea otters are old enough to reproduce at five years old, and females at three or four years. A male sea otter will compete for territory and breed with all of the females within that territory. A female usually gives birth to a single pup after six months. A pup is born with special baby fur, which a mother will groom for hours. This special grooming will trap air in the baby's fur and make it impossible to dive, like a built-in life jacket! After about thirteen weeks the baby fur will be replaced with adult fur. After about two months the mother will start to feed the baby hard food, and most babies stop nursing from eight-to-twelve months old. The mother will teach her pup how to swim and dive.

Sea otters are endangered. Historically, they could be found in the waters of Japan and Baja California, Mexico. Sea otters have been valued for thousands of years for their thick fur coats. It was not until the 1700s however that they began to experience dramatic overhunting. Through the 18th and 19th centuries they were especially targeted by Russian and American hunters. At one point it was thought that only 2,000 sea otters remained. Fortunately, though the species is still endangered, it has seen remarkable improvement. In 1911, the US, Russia and several other countries signed the Treaty for Preservation and Protection of Fur Seals, which issued a moratorium on hunting sea otters and other animals. During the 20th century and into the 21st, multiple reintroduction programs were organized, and consequently sea otters have now reclaimed two-thirds of their original range. Some have even been occasionally sighted in Japan again. The sea otter's repatriation is considered to be one of the greatest achievements in marine conservation!

Still, sea otters remain threatened from oil spills, which prevents their coats from keeping them warm, as well as poaching and abandoned fishing lines. It also appears that orca and shark attacks on sea otters are becoming more frequent. The last stronghold of southern sea otters lives in California and are under constant pressure, and the sea otters of the Aleutian Islands have experienced setbacks. Make no mistake, fantastic progress has been made and there is every reason to be hopeful for sea otters. But, more must be done to ensure that sea otters keep floating into the future.

To learn more about how to help these adorable sea critters, check out these awesome websites:

Sea Otters.com-A website dedicated to spreading awareness about the southern sea otter!

Sea Otter Savvy-A program that advocates for responsible viewing of sea otters as they reclaim their historic range.

Smithsonian Magazine, "Bringing Back Sea Otters Benefits People, Too"-This article goes into more detail about why sea otter reintroduction is so important!


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