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Published on May 20, 2024
Females Lead in Tool Use Among California Sea Otters as Survival Tactic, UT Austin Study FindsSource: Unsplash / Kedar Gadge

In the battle for survival, sea otters have turned to using tools, and it seems the ladies of the species are leading the pack. A groundbreaking study spearheaded by Chris Law, a postdoctoral researcher at The University of Texas at Austin, reveals that when it comes to dining, female otters, armed with rocks and other makeshift gadgets, are cracking into tougher and bigger meals than their male counterparts. Published in Science, the study throws light on the habits of 196 radio-tagged southern sea otters along the California coast, with data collected by a combination of "otter spotters," academia, and conservation organizations.

Their preferred foods, such as abalone and sea urchins, are becoming scarcer, which forces the otters to forage for other hard-shelled seafood that could wreak havoc on their teeth. Following the marine mammals' feeding activities a team including experts from UC Santa Cruz, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and other organizations discovered that the use of tools is more than a quirky trait — it's pivotal for their survival. Monitoring closely, researchers found that in the face of dwindling food sources, female otters utilized tools to eat prey up to 35% harder than males did, allowing them to avoid tooth damage and keep them hunting effectively.

In a statement obtained by The University of Texas News, Law emphasized, "Sea otters vary in how often they use tools," linking this behavior to their calorie intake and well-being. He further added, "The females are likely using tools to overcome their smaller body size and weaker biting ability in order to meet their calorie demands. Raising pups takes a lot of energy." This energy is garnered by cleverly turning to natural utensils to crack a wider variety of shellfish when their usual buffet starts to thin out.

With a count of only about 3,000 individuals in California, southern sea otters are not only adorable but play a crucial part in maintaining the health of marine ecosystems, specifically through munching on sea urchins that can decimate kelp forests. The females, which are more likely to pass on their tool-wielding savvy to offspring, like in some other smart species like dolphins and chimpanzees, are teaching the next generation a critical skillset for survival.

This research, according to the involvement of individuals like Rita Mehta and Tim Tinker from UC Santa Cruz, has been supported by an array of funding sources promising commitment to the longevity of these marine critters. The funding bodies include the U.S. National Science Foundation, Packard Foundation, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, ensuring the continual study and preservation of these important players in our coastal ecosystems.

Austin-Weather & Environment