Scientists Hold A Tupperware Party To Find Out How Otters Learn

Cute fact of the day: Sea otters keep their favorite rock tucked away in tiny pockets under their forearms. Yeah, that’s right. Each one has their own special rock, which they use for bashing things like clams and sea shells.

Not so long ago, a study came out suggesting sea otters have been using tools for thousands (possibly millions) of years. Scientists think this is something they learned to do innately, but they weren’t sure if it’s a skill that could be picked up by other species of otter. To find out, researchers at the University of Exeter held a Tupperware party.

The results, published in Royal Society Open Science, indicate that some but not all otters are able to learn by watching and copying each other (social learning).

Researchers looked at two different species of otter: the smooth-coated otter and the Asian small-clawed otter. Both species live in family groups, but only the smooth-haired otter uses teamwork to find food.

To see if either of these two species could learn how to use tools, the researchers gave them a series of puzzles to solve. These included Tupperware containers of various shapes and sizes containing tasty treats like frozen shrimp, peanuts, and fish heads. It took one very unlucky otter three hours to take the lid off a container. Most were able to do it within 20 minutes. But what was interesting was how the different species of otter approached the challenge. 

Smooth-haired otters are found in South and South-East Asia. red-feniks/Shutterstock

The smooth-coated otters used teamwork and were more likely to copy the individual otters they spent more time with. Researchers also noted that younger otters completed the task six times faster than their parents.

“The order in which the young otters solved the puzzles followed the strength of their social ties,” Dr Neeltje Boogert, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall, said in a statement. “This indicates that the juveniles copied those siblings they spent most time with.”

The Asian short-clawed otters were much less cooperative. Researchers found absolutely no evidence to suggest they worked collaboratively to find solutions to problems.

The smallest of otters, the Asian short-clawed otter, can be found across South and South-East Asia. scooperdigital/Shutterstock

“Asian short-clawed otters are not known to forage in groups, and their natural diet consists mainly of prey such as shellfish and crabs that do not require group-hunting strategies,” explained Boogert.

“In the wild, smooth-coated otters show coordinated group-hunting strategies such as V-shaped swimming formations to catch fish – so it makes sense that they would be naturally inclined to watch each other for foraging information.”

Several breeds of otter are listed as endangered. Others are classified as threatened or vulnerable. Researchers hope this research can be used to help captive-bred otters make it in the wild.

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