Otters Can Learn From Each Other and This Might Help Them Survive, Study Finds


Asian short-clawed otters. wrangel / iStock / Getty Images Plus

The Asian short-clawed otter (Aonyx cinereus) is the world’s smallest otter, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). But what they lack in size, they make up for in brain power.

The approximately three-foot long otters can learn from each other, and show the capacity for long-term memory, a new study published Wednesday by The Royal Society found.

“Our study is the first to show evidence of social learning and long-term memory in Asian short-clawed otters – which may be good news in terms of their adaptability and future survival,” lead author Alex Saliveros, who works from the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter’s Cornwall campus, said in a press release.

To test the otters’ learning abilities, the researchers provided the animals with different transparent containers filled with meatballs. To access the snacks, the otters had to learn how to twist or pull a lid or handle.

The researchers discovered that once one otter figured out how to open the container, their friends were also more likely to solve the puzzle. This is evidence of what the researchers call “social learning.”

The scientists also tested the otters’ long term memory by giving them access to the same puzzles after a several-month gap. The otters were able to get into the food 69 percent faster than when they first encountered the containers. This is evidence that the otters have long-term memory.

The findings don’t just teach scientists more about a unique animal species. They also may help them to save them. The otters, who are found in South and Southeast Asia from the Himalaya foothills of India to Indonesia and the Philippines, are considered vulnerable by the IUCN and their population is in decline. The primary forces driving this decline are deforestation, the overfishing of their prey and agriculture, including the use of pesticides that poisons the waters they fish in.

“Asian short-clawed otters are declining in the wild, partly due to overfishing and pollution affecting the crustaceans and small fish they feed on,” Saliveros said in the press release. “With that in mind, we wanted to understand more about how they learn and remember information about new food sources. Being able to catch new prey in new ways, and to pass on that knowledge, could be important in terms of conservation.”

The research builds on an a 2017 study from the University of Exeter, which found that smooth-coated otters could learn to open food puzzles by copying each other. However, that study found no evidence of that Asian short-clawed otters learned from each other.

“Now that we know Asian short-clawed otters do so as well, we can start investigating how we might transmit critical survival information regarding new foods and predators through wild otter groups more generally,” senior author Dr. Neeltje Boogert, who was involved with both studies, said in the press release.

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