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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Field Note: Mother and Son: Sea Otter Bonding

Published: July 9, 2021


By Mark Seth Lender


Sea otter mothers are constantly grooming their pup's thick fur. (Photo: (c) Mark Seth Lender)

At Elkhorn Slough in Monterey Bay, California, an attentive mother sea otter grooms her young pup's thick fur, and grooms him for the independent life he will someday lead. Living on Earth's Explorer-in-Residence Mark Seth Lender observes and explains.

Sea otters spend a significant percentage of their day grooming, a matter of survival. Their fur is incredibly dense (estimated at 1,000,000 hair follicles per square inch) which creates a large number of isolated and therefore insulating, air pockets. Dirty hairs stick and clump and lose their captured air. Therefore, cleaning must be both constant and meticulous and the technique has to be learned. The learning starts right away. The pup in this story who was only days old was already making his first attempt at grooming, using his little paws to rub his face. Part of his transition to independence will depend on the ability to handle his own hygiene. He will also have to learn to how to make his living.

After a mother sea otter starts to offer her pup solid food he will try to follow her lead. She dives, he dives but cannot follow. These attempts begin when the baby is still too light and buoyant to force his way down, the result of all that insulating air. The babies pop up like corks. Trapped on the surface and unable to follow their mothers they call out, “Mom! Mom!” Exactly what it sounds like, “Mom! Mom! Mom!” As if they fear that she has left them. Or lost them. Or that they have lost her. In another year or so, they will. Lose her.

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