Otters learn from others to get to their food

Published: 30 August 2017 at 10:31

A smooth-coated otter

New research shows, for the first time, otters display social learning to solve tasks

Otters in social groups learn from their peers to solve tasks, according to new research published today in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Researchers from Anglia Ruskin University, the University of Exeter and the University of Leeds designed a study where captive otters in three different UK zoos and parks were given ‘foraging tasks’ – retrieving different types of food from containers.

The study found smooth-coated otters observed each other completing tasks – such as retrieving food from a container sealed with clips, or ones with screw-top/pull-off lids – and copied the behaviour in order to extract their own food. 

Younger otters learned how to solve the puzzles more than six times faster than their parents.

However, the same experiments found the Asian short-clawed otters showed no sign of copying each other. Researchers had expected to find social learning behaviour among both species.

Zosia Ladds, who carried out the field research while studying at Anglia Ruskin, said: 

“It was amazing to see otters copying each other to unscrew containers and undo clips to get to their reward: sprats or shrimp provided great motivation. 

“They have complex social relationships, even within families, and their group dynamics are always changing.”

Dr Neetlje Boogert, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter, said: 

“Our results suggest smooth-coated otters adopt a ‘copy when young’ strategy.

“The order in which the young otters solved the puzzles followed the strength of their social ties. This indicates that the juveniles copied those siblings they spent most time with.”

The otters were observed at Colchester Zoo, Paradise Wildlife Park and New Forest Wildlife Park. The study was funded by the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.