Otters are actually copycats. They solve puzzles by watching and repeating the actions of another otter. However, only the otters species that hunt together in the wild are able to learn from others.

Scientists from the University of Exeter gave otters sets of food-baited puzzles to solve. The experiments were conducted in captivity, at zoos and wildlife parks. The otters were given plastic Tupperware containers with clips on the lids, screw-top lids, or pull off lids. Inside were treats such as peanuts and fish heads. The most difficult task? A block of frozen shrimp attached to a bamboo stick — it had to be moved up and to the right to get it out of the plastic container. Only half of the otters managed to get the shrimp out.

Smooth-coated otters learn from each other, especially when they are young. Image credits: Kokhuitan.

“Social learning has been studied in many species, but never in otters,” said Dr. Neeltje Boogert, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall.

Young otters copied their parents to solve the puzzles: the offspring solved the puzzles much faster than their parents. However, not every otter species did this. Smooth-coated otters copied their parents, while Asian short-clawed otters did not. The researchers expected to find social learning in both otter species, so it was surprising that the Asian short-clawed otter didn’t exhibit it.

“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. 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,” explained Dr. Boogert.

This finding is cool, but it is also practical. Many otters are endangered in the wild, so captive breeding programs and re-release are used to help them recover. Previous work on captive breeding and re-release has found that animals with wild skills, like catching food (or cracking open sea urchins with rocks) and avoiding predators, have a higher rate of survival. Teaching the otters certain behaviors through social learning can help them to survive in the wild.

Journal reference: Zosia Ladds, William Hoppitt, Neeltje J. Boogert. Social learning in ottersRoyal Society Open Science, 2017; 4 (8): 170489 DOI: 1098/rsos.170489

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