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Otter-ly delightful

The humble otter has much to teach us.

Art by Isla Mowbray

“Did you know that otters hold hands so they don’t drift apart?”, one of my friends tells me.

I sigh. Yes, the otters have become a symbol of mutualistic affection, their cartoon bodies plastered onto cheesy Valentine’s cards with an accompanying ‘I otter-ly adore you!’. But they are more than a paragon of love. This creature is feisty, resourceful, playful, but most of all, multi-dimensional. 

Trick and treat 

Otters exhibit enigmatic behaviour all year round, leaving researchers puzzled in their wake. Mesmerising and playful, the creature has been frequently observed juggling small pebbles whilst afloat. They launch the rocks high into the air and catch them with grace, rolling them across their furry bellies and necks. According to researchers at the University of Exeter, otters are inherently social creatures with a penchant for mimicry- thus one juggler inspires a whole circus. Recently, theories have emerged aiming to explain this carnival act, including the hypothesis that the performance correlates with anticipating dinner! A popular theory suggests they may be innately drawn to juggling to distract themselves from hunger pangs, or to demonstrate their excitement. Rock juggling may also be a brain stimulating activity, increasing in frequency as they age, to remain sharp and alert. Like us, otters are closely attached to objects, as David Attenborough claims each otter has their favourite rock with which they tussle and play. Some keep their beloved rock under a loose fold of skin in their armpit area for their entire lifetime, refusing to part with it.

A raft of fun

These spirited beings do not simply come to play in the animal kingdom, but when they do, their playtime is one to behold. Researchers watch with amazement as otters create exhilarating water amusement parks, transforming waterfalls into water slides, turning somersaults and splashing in the sea. Sliding may actually serve a survival function; they accelerate down mud paths as a form of transport, and also reinforce territory with fecal ‘spraint’ production during vigorous activity. They clearly receive some adrenaline rush, as wild otters were once viewed sliding 16 times in under a minute! As they are social, their communal playtime can be remarkably structured and governed by rules. Otters have been observed playing ‘tag’ in groups and chasing each others’ tails, as well as undergoing bouts of non-aggressive wrestling, often as frequently as 20 times an hour. They are also notably vocal with others, and have been witnessed chuckling, chirping, squeaking and snorting, all in the name of lively otter banter. Indiscriminate in their embrace, otters will hold hands and play with strangers, bonding over a shared predilection for amusement. 

Otterworldly skills

Whilst otters cannot purchase tools from a hardware store, their resourcefulness and tact supersedes that of cavemen, as they find novel ways to break apart hard shells encasing their food. They have been observed viciously smashing their prey against sharp rocks, or repurposing their favourite toy as a hammer. In their game of life, play intertwines with their pursuit of nutrition. As Polecha, who studies the river otter, illustrates, “They are investigators. They turn over rocks and swim under log piles”, while spiritedly hunting for food. These creatures sometimes display a cunning nature, evident when they squat and settle in beaver dams, forcing an exodus of this fellow marine mammal, rather than constructing their own habitats. 

Otterable skincare

Researchers have endeavoured to decipher otters’ obsession with skincare, as they incessantly massage their own faces. This behaviour is purposeful, as sea otters tidy and neaten their fur, which is the densest in all the animal kingdom. Ensuring their fur’s cleanliness is crucial to maintaining its waterproofing qualities, so they vigorously rub and rub, to the delight of onlookers.   

Looking after each-otter

As well as holding hands to avoid drifting apart from their friends, otters are one of the most protective creatures over their pups. As young pups’ eyes remain closed for a short time after birth, the mother cleverly wraps them in seaweed and love, fastening her vulnerable offspring to her chest, and gliding gently along the water’s surface. If she needs to forage, she tightly ties her pup with kelp to ensure they do not drift astray. 

I mustelid like it is: the otter’s spirited and infectious joie de vivre should delight us, uplift us and, most importantly, inspire us. I can only imagine humanity would improve if we tamed a favourite rock, opted for water slides as public transport, tied our loved ones in kelp, and approached life as a game.

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