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Published on June 04, 2024
Adaptive Ingenuity Aids Survival of Southern Sea Otters on California's Coast, Study RevealsSource: Mike Baird from Morro Bay, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

On the rugged coast of central California, the survival of Southern sea otters, a threatened species, hinges on adaptability and innovation. Long victim to environmental changes and historical hunting, a modest population of about 3,000 remains. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, including postdoctoral researcher Chris Law, offers insightful revelations into the adaptive behaviors of these marine mammals, particularly their use of tools to mitigate food scarcity.

According to KXAN, the decline in their preferred prey, such as urchins and abalone, has driven sea otters to diversify their diet to include other hard-shelled creatures. An imposing task that entails the use of rocks, shells, and even discarded trash as makeshift anvils to crack open the sturdy shells. Such ingenuity not only ensures access to vital nutrients but also, conserves energy — a critical advantage, given the otters' caloric demands, particularly among females who bear the energetic cost of raising pups.

Interestingly, Law’s research published in the scientific journal Science, as reported by LabRoots, shows that tool use correlates with reduced tooth damage in these otters.

"We were curious to see if individuals that use tools more frequently, are they showing a reduction in tooth damage," Law told KXAN. This discovery underscores the critical role of tool use in the longevity and health of these creatures.

Law elaborated on the significance of tool-wielding behavior among females, who due to smaller body size and weaker biting ability, may rely on tools to efficiently forage and sustain the energetically expensive process of pup rearing. "The study shows that tool use is an important behavior for survival," Law said in the LabRoots interview. Furthermore, the study concluded that female otters using tools could consume prey up to 35 percent harder compared to males who also use tools. 

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