Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

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

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.

Ningaloo Reef near Exmouth on April 2, 2012 in Western Australia. James D. Morgan / Getty Images News

By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge

In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.

Read More Show Less

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A 3-hour special film by EarthxTV calls for protection of the Amazon and its indigenous populations. EarthxTV.org

To save the planet, we must save the Amazon rainforest. To save the rainforest, we must save its indigenous peoples. And to do that, we must demarcate their land.

Read More Show Less


UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres delivers a video speech at the high-level meeting of the 46th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council UNHRC in Geneva, Switzerland on Feb. 22, 2021. Xinhua / Zhang Cheng via Getty Images

By Anke Rasper

"Today's interim report from the UNFCCC is a red alert for our planet," said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

The report, released Friday, looks at the national climate efforts of 75 states that have already submitted their updated "nationally determined contributions," or NDCs. The countries included in the report are responsible for about 30% of the world's global greenhouse gas emissions.

Read More Show Less
New Delhi's smog is particularly thick, increasing the risk of vehicle accidents. SAJJAD HUSSAIN / AFP via Getty Images

India's New Delhi has been called the "world air pollution capital" for its high concentrations of particulate matter that make it harder for its residents to breathe and see. But one thing has puzzled scientists, according to The Guardian. Why does New Delhi see more blinding smogs than other polluted Asian cities, such as Beijing?

Read More Show Less
A bridge over the Delaware river connects New Hope, Pennsylvania with Lambertville, New Jersey. Richard T. Nowitz / Getty Images

In a historic move, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) voted Thursday to ban hydraulic fracking in the region. The ban was supported by all four basin states — New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York — putting a permanent end to hydraulic fracking for natural gas along the 13,539-square-mile basin, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Read More Show Less