Otter See, Otter Do: Study Documents Social Learning in Otters

Posted by TF Oren

Social learning is a phenomenon that has been observed and studied in a number of species.

However, no study has yet to document the phenomenon in otters…until now.

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Researchers from the University of Exeter and Anglia Ruskin University presented two species of zoo and wildlife park-dwelling otters with a number of puzzles in order to observe the animals’ problem-solving skills and cooperative efforts, if any.

What the researchers found was that out of the two species tested, smooth-coated otters, learned how to solve the puzzles by copying each other, with younger otters more likely to copycat than older ones. In fact, younger otters solved the puzzles, which included tricky-to-open containers with treats inside, more than six times faster than their parents and older counterparts.

Moreover, researchers noted that the strength of social ties played an important role in the success of the otters’ problem-solving strategies.

“The order in which the young otters solved the puzzles followed the strength of their social ties. This indicates that the juveniles copied those siblings they spent most time with,” said Dr. Neeltje Boogert.


Interestingly, researchers did not observe any signs of social learning in the second species of otter they studied: Asian short-clawed otters.

Dr. Boogert suspects that the lack of social learning behavior in the Asian short-clawed otters could have something to do with their more solitary hunting behaviors.

“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…As a result, they may have less of a tendency to turn to each other to see how to solve a puzzle such as how to extract food from a new source.”

Smooth-coated otters, on the other hand, rely on group-hunting strategies to feed themselves in the wild. Thus, it is not surprising that they would also rely on each other for help solving food-related puzzles.

A number of otter species are listed as threatened, vulnerable, or endangered. This research could help conservationists’ efforts to reintroduce otters to the wild, as prior research on captive-bred endangered species has shown that social learning behaviors result in better survival rates. These very behaviors can be used as tools to help teach captive-bred otters how to survive in the wild.

Read the full study by clicking here.

Did you know otters were such problem solvers? Let us know in the comments section!

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Otter See, Otter Do: Study Documents Social Learning in Otters