Are you one of the 21 million people who have viewed the sea otters holding hands video at the Vancouver Aquarium? There is so much more to sea otters than being fuzzy floating narcoleptics. During the Vancouver Aquarium’s Sea Otter Awareness Week September 19 through 27, we wanted to share the five senses sea otters use to explore their surroundings every day.
Sight: Compared to other marine mammals, sea otters have relatively good eyesight above and below the water which makes sense for an amphibious marine mammal (living on both the land and in the water). Each of the sea otters demonstrate an observant nature of their surroundings. In fact if you’re some of the first staff or guests to arrive in the morning, you can see the otters perk up at the goings on around them. To keep their minds and bodies active, the sea otters receive enrichment items or toys on a daily basis and seem to show preferences for their “favorite” toys. Their visual acuity is also apparent during training sessions as the otters can recognize different trainers and even understand the visual cues or hand signals to convey which behaviours they are asking of the otters.
Hearing: While a sea otter has great hearing above the water studies have found that their underwater hearing is actually not so good. They spend a great deal of time floating at the surface of the ocean on their backs, where they can hear predators like eagles or killer whales approaching. Here at the Vancouver Aquarium the sea otters can not only hear the trainer’s voices well above the water, they can even respond to their own names! All four of the sea otters demonstrate a keen sense of hearing at the surface of the water and you can witness it yourself during sea otter training sessions.
Touch: Just as we feel our surroundings, sea otters use their paws as well as their whiskers, or vibrissae to feel around their environment and to identify different textures. The sense of touch is especially obvious if you are observing Wally. Due to his injuries caused by a gunshot blast, he is completely blind. He can hear his trainers but if you watch him for a short period of time, you will notice that he carefully feels his way around. As he swims, he reaches his paws above his head to touch the glass or rocky surfaces he is also using his whiskers quite often too, and he is still capable of finding live crabs in his habitat and demolishing with astonishing speed! As for the whiskers, sea otters will swim close to the bottom running their moustache-like whiskers (mystacial whiskers) over the surface to detect prey items using the sensitive nerves attached to each individual whisker.
Smell: The sea otter nose is useful for more than just being the cherry on top of a cute little face. A sea otter’s sense of smell is extremely acute. Research at another facility has shown this keen sense helps otters differentiate between contaminated clams and safe clams before consumption. Having a strong sense of smell is important to sea otters and we find that they seem to enjoy different smells. When presented with strong distinct smells the otters tend to have more of a reaction to it. For example, Elfin seems to have a stronger reaction to the smell of coffee than some less distinct smells.
Taste: And finally, let’s not forget the sense of taste. If you had to choose an animal to come back as in a second life and you love seafood, we highly recommend being a sea otter. They eat a quarter of their body weight in seafood on a daily basis, including clams, squid, shrimp, scallops, crab, cod and more. Sea otters are the only marine mammal that actually chews their food, all others uses their teeth to hold onto prey before swallowing it, whole in many cases. While it is hard to know if they can actually taste their food, these hairy ravenous creatures eat so much seafood that it costs $90 per day or $30,000 per year to feed each animal. That is an expensive taste for seafood!
Elfin, Wally, Tanu and Katmai are all rescued and non-releasable animals, and even though they are unable to survive in the oceans, their five senses allow them to thrive in their home at the Vancouver Aquarium. With their help we are learning more about sea otters every day and most importantly they give our guests and staff a chance to experience the sense of awe and inspire us to learn more about our oceans and the animals that live in them.
You can help us care for these rescued otters and their big seafood appetites by donating to the Vancouver Aquarium today.
Learn more about these amazing creatures during Sea Otter Awareness Week on now at the Vancouver Aquarium or tune in to our live #seaotterchat Wednesday September 21 at 11 a.m. PST on twitter.