The sea otter, or Enhydra lutris
, may look cute, adorable and cuddly, but there are a lot more additional qualities to these furry marine mammals than one would expect. Because their dense, soft fur is of an exceptional, rich quality and was quite popular and trendy in the fashion industry many centuries ago, sea otters were hunted extensively until only 1,000-2,000 were left alive in their habitats in the Northern Pacific Ocean, and surviving from their original immense, massive population of about 150,000-300,000 (Okerlund 2007, 1
). These set of events unfortunately led up to leaving sea otters listed as an endangered species underneath the Endangered Species Act (Anonymous 2012, 3
The sea otter’s scientific name, Enhydra lutris, is derived from both an ancient Greek and Latin foundation, and origin; Enhydra meaning “water” or “in the water” and lutris meaning “otter” (Anonymous 2012, 5). The sea otter has been specifically and explicitly classified into an assortment of scientific categories, like their kingdom as Animalia, phylum as Chordata, class as Mammalia, order as Carnivora, family as Mustelidae, genus as Enhydra, and species as Enhydra lutris (Gunderson 2002, 1). Sea otters are related and connected to weasels, badgers, minks, and beavers, therefore showing that they evolved from the same common universal ancestor a time period long ago in the Mustelidae family (Anonymous 2012, 6).
Sea otters are native and residents to the coasts of the northern and eastern North Pacific Ocean, ranging from a wide variety of diverse, widespread locations such as Japan, Russia, Mexico, Canada, Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, California, Oregon, and a great deal more (Anonymous 2012, 19). Otters prefer habitats and biomes with great defense and protection from human disturbances and harsh, destructive ocean winds, like rocky coastlies, broad, thick, kelp forests, and great barrier reefs. The sea otter also resides and inhabits areas where the sea floor consists of mainly mud, sand, or silt (Doroff 2011, 3).
Sea otters are the largest, heaviest animals of the Mustelidae family, but are one of the smallest marine mammals. Male sea otters weigh between about 50-100 pounds, while generally smaller females weigh between about 30-75 pounds. With reddish-brown plush, thick fur, prominent whiskers, paw-like, webbed hands, flipper-like feet, retractable claws, and a broad, flattened tail, the sea otter has an excellent body to help provide survival in its environment and atmosphere, even though the sea otter’s bodies contain barely any blubber for protection. Instead of this blubber, the sea otter has thick, waterproof fur that covers the entire, complete, vast expanse of its body. Sea otter fur is very dense; over 100,000 hairs envelop every single square centimeter on their bodies that require and necessitate fur (Gunderson 2002, 4).
The sea otter has numerous amounts of adaptations to its surrounding environmental atmosphere and daily requirements. When this marine mammal swims underwater, its nostrils and ears close up to not let any water get inside of their bodily systems. Sea otters’ hind feet are completely webbed and fully padded, which provides steady propulsion when they swim (Anonymous 2012, 9). Sea otters can swim underwater as fast and swiftly as five miles an hour (Gunderson 2002, 5). The sea otter has small, little paws with retractable claws, and also has tough, strong, sturdy pads on its palms, so that this marine mammal can grip its prey without it slipping between its paws (Anonymous 2012, 9). Otters have adapted to having strong, sharp teeth, due to having to eat plenty of foods with tough shells, such as clams or oysters (Anonymous 2012, 11).
Being a hearty-eating carnivore, the sea otter devours and consumes a wide variety of prey in its entire diet. The sea otter’s daily meal mainly consists of marine invertebrates, such as sea urchins, clams, oysters, mussels, abalones, mollusks, crustaceans, sea cucumbers, snails, limpets, crabs, octopuses, squids, tubeworms, and scallops. Although these organisms rarely come up in their diet, sea otters also have eaten fish, starfish, and kelp (Nickerson 2011, 3). Based off of the density and heaviness of these foods, one can deduce that sea otters consume quite a massive amount of food. In fact, the sea otter eats 25-30% of its body weight a day (Anonymous 2012, 12).
Sea otters usually hunt their prey underwater, most of the times on the sea floor. Prey is located using vision and touch and is caught and captured between the sea otter’s forepaws. When the sea otter search for clams, for example, this marine mammal has to forage beneath large boulders and heavy rocks in order to grab its meal. To do this, the sea otter grabs the rocks with its front paws and lifts them up and move them someplace else (Anonymous 2012, 14). Afterwards, the sea otter grabs as many clams as it wants and a rock, and stores them in a loose pocket of skin that extends from its forelegs across its chest (Blood 1993, 9). When they reach the surface, sea otters usually bash the stone against the clams until they open up. Sea otters are one of the small minorities of mammals to ingeniously use equipment, such as tools and utensils, like the rocks they use to open clams in order to eat them (Grunwald 2009, 1).
Sea otters are mammals, so they can produce their own offspring through sexual reproduction. When sea otters mate, they can tend to be a bit rough and even, at times, violent, especially to the female otter, when a male bites her muzzle to keep her under the surface of the water. Their mating takes place underwater, and birth generally as well happens underwater (Anonymous 2012, 17
). Female sea otters usually give birth to only a single, individual pup; twins are rarely born, and when they are given birth to, neither one of them survive in most circumstances (Doroff 2011, 5
). When sea otter pups are born, they have a thick coating of baby fur, which the mother grooms over and over until it puffs out, and the pup cannot sink underwater, but instead float above the surface of the water. Pups lose their baby fur and receive adult fur in the span of thirteen weeks. Females take full, complete responsibility of raising their offspring for six to eight months, until the pups are fully independent (Gunderson 2002, 9
). Male sea otters typically live for an expanse of ten to fifteen years, while females live fifteen to twenty years on average (Anonymous 2012, 18
The sea otter is classified as an endangered species, due to the sudden extreme decrease of population. The greatest threat to sea otters are oil spills, which releases harmful, lethal, toxic chemicals into the sea and into the habitat of the sea otter. When the poisonous oil reaches the sea otters and attaches to the marine mammal’s fur, the sea otter becomes hypothermic, due to the fact that the oil makes sea otter fur lose its insulating property, and with no blubber layer, oil will be ingested while grooming and get into the sea otter’s system, resulting in death (Doroff 2011, 7).
The sea otter plays an important role as a keystone species in the ecosystem; the marine mammal helps maintain kelp forests and keep them healthy from species that graze on kelp, mostly of which are sea urchins. Sea urchins graze on the lower stems of kelp, which causes the underwater plant to tear off and drift away. The consequence of this action results in loss of habitat and effects marine species. So to accomplish the task of saving the kelp forests, sea otters consume sea urchins they come across. This is also an example of mutualism. The kelp forest helps provide a preferred habitat for sea otters and provides the marine mammal with food, and while eating the kelp forest’s harmful inhabitants, sea otters help keep the forest alive and healthy (Anonymous 2012, 21). In addition to being both an endangered and a keystone species, the sea otter is also classified as an indicator species, for this helpful organism provides insight into the imminent health of the near shore environment (Shimek 2007, 1). For example, southern sea otters are a reliable indicator of the health of marine mammals living on the shoreline of coastal beaches in California, due to their interactions to human activity (Kreuder Et Al 2001, 2). This shows how the sea otter is a great, trusted indicator of health of the Pacific Coast's near shore marine ecosystem (Thomas 1996, 3).
An interesting study I have learned about sea otters is that release of a new chemical has been causing the deaths of thousands of these marine mammals. Currently, cyanobacteria are producing environmentally harmful biotoxins, microcystins, which is an emerging global health issue in marine habitats (Miller 2010, 1). These toxic chemicals actually come from something that resides in the majority of households in this world. Cats excrete feces, and when it is thrown out, waste agencies dump them in an area where they run off and are washed away into marine communities. The chemical inside these cat feces is potentially harmful and toxic to sea otters, and when they accidentally consume this as a meal, they become poisoned, which most likely leads to death (Goldman 2003, 3).
Sea otters played a key role in a variety of ancient legends from the Native American tribes in the coastal region of North America. In these cultures, one believed that the natural world was associated with spirits, and the sea otter was considered related to the humans. A Native American tribe, the Ainu, portrayed the sea otter as a messenger between humans and the creator. The sea otter is a major part of Ainu legends and folklore. The Ainu believed that brokenhearted lovers jumped into the ocean and became sea otters. This Native American tribe may have believed this based on the characteristics of sea otters, such as playfulness, strong mother-pup bonds, and tool use, leading to the concept of anthropomorphism, which is any attribution of human characteristics to animals, or inanimate objects; this is closely related to personification (Anonymous 2012, 23). For example, there was once a pretty girl who lived in a seaside village with her brother, right next to the cliff where the powerful Bird Spirit resided. One day, the Bird Spirit convinced her to marry him, and took her away to live a lonely, scary life on his cliff. As soon as her brother found out, he found and rescued her, taking her back home, only for the angry Bird Spirit to send out a destructive blizzard at that was aimed at their village. Due to this, they were cast out into the storm. Looking for a place to hide, they ran along the coast, only to be swept away by a powerful, giant wave into the sea. Seeing them drowning, the Sea Goddess felt pity for them and transformed them into graceful sea creatures, and gave them warm, furry coats so they would not freeze in the sea. That is how the Ainu believed the sea otter was created. The brother and sister soon parted ways and started different clans in different parts of the world. The Ainu believed that if a person saw an otter watching them with a playful glint in their shining eyes, one should greet them kindly, for the sea otters could be one of the person's brothers or sisters of the sea (Anonymous 2006, 1).
Sea otters were a part of my life ever since I was a young, bright-eyed child. When I was younger, I used to be very interested in the characteristics of animals, and just cute animals in general. I would frequently convince my parents to take me to a zoo or aquarium so I could come up close to the animals I deeply admired. When we went to visit the San Diego Zoo, I rushed to the indoor aquarium exhibit and my eye was drawn to the sea otters. As I watched them swim around with their powerful, supple bodies, I became mesmerized and extremely interested. At one point, a sea otter came to the glass were I was standing and looked through the clear material right into my eyes. It was a moment to never forget. When I left the San Diego Zoo, I was certain of two things. Sea otters were one of my favorite animals, and I couldn’t wait to convince my parents to buy me one. Of course, I never did get to own a sea otter as a pet, but my feelings have never changed about how amazing their gracefulness were to me.
To sum it up, the sea otter may be an extremely interesting species, but these marine mammals are more than sweet, adorable animals. Sea otters are fighters; fighting for the lives they deserve to live, and fighting to stay off of the Endangered Species List. To gain a greater understanding of the sea otter, one can get to know the meaning of its name, its habitat and range, its physical description, adaptions, species survival status, and the newest conducted scientific research on them, as well as captivating legends about them. Hopefully, as the sea otters continue to replenish the world with its loved presence, it will no longer be the endangered species it once was, but a symbol of perseverance and gracefulness.