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The Playful, Mischievous Sea Otter

Updated: Dec 21, 2023

Sea Otter
Sea Otter. Photo: Unsplash/ Amanda Panda

What is the most endearing thing about sea otters? We probably can’t choose just one thing. They seem to have unbridled energy. They are always so playful. One of nature’s most charming creatures. But that is not all. Most importantly and perhaps not many people know, is that they are a singular keystone species that keep the near-shore ecosystems of oceans under balance. Keystone species are those whose very existence maintains the balance of the habitat in which they live. So, how do these over-energetic, medium-sized mammals control the atmosphere in which they live?

How the Sea Otter Balances the Ecosystem

Near-shore ecosystems contain kelp, embayment, and estuaries. Embayment are recesses in coastlines creating a bay. Estuaries are a partially enclosed, coastal water body where freshwater from rivers and streams mixes with salt water from the ocean. Estuaries filter out sediments and pollutants from rivers and streams before they dump into the ocean. Sea otters live in this environment. Kelp forests are a form of algae that inhabit cold, nutrient rich ocean bodies. They are home to and a food source to many marine critters such as seals, sea lions, whales, gulls, terns, snowy egrets, great blue herons, cormorants, and shore birds. Sea otters control the health of kelp forests by consuming the sea urchins, which, if unchecked will overpopulate and destroy it. Sea otters also help reduce the level of carbon dioxide, albeit indirectly, a greenhouse gas. This is because kelp also absorb and diffuse carbon. Fascinating!

Sea Otter in Kelp
Otters in kelp. Photo: Unsplash/ Kieran Wood

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Sea Otters Are So Resourceful

Sea otters do not have blubber to keep warm such as other marine mammals, but with about 1 million hairs per square inch, their fur is the densest of any animal on earth. Sea otters are foragers and eat mostly hard-shelled invertebrates, including, as mentioned, sea urchins, a variety of clams, mussels, and crabs. They are one of the few mammal species on earth to use a tool to hunt and feed. They wedge a rock between their chest and the “armpit” of a foreleg and pound shells against it to open them up. Not only this, but sea otters are also the only marine mammals capable of flipping over boulders on the sea floor to search for food and to catch fish with their forepaws and not its mouth!

Sea otters need to constantly groom and clean their body. Oil spills or mud, for instance, clinging to their coats can lead hypothermia and death.

Around 5 feet (1.5m) long and weighing approximately 100 lbs (45 Kgs), sea otters do not venture far from their territory. When they need to take a nap, they will wrap themselves in giant kelp vines or hold each other’s hands. Normally, they live in groups of 30-100.

Sleeping Sea Otters
Sleeping Sea Otters. Photo:

Today there are about 100,000 sea otters left in the wild, worldwide. As with all marine animals, they are also on the endangered list. They used to be hunted extensively for their fur, while ocean pollution is also a huge threat. In addition, their environment is changing for the worse because of extensive fishing and hunting. These creatures are “otter-ly” amazing! Let’s do our part to keep them and their ecosystem alive.

Want to support the otter?

Purchase one of our 100% cotton animal pun tee for youths that features a hand-designed, beloved otter! For an educational spin, fun facts about the otter are displayed on the back.

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