Why are otters playful?


Play or practice? Otters are known for their apparent playfulness. See more pictures of mammals.
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When a teacher gives a young child a set of blocks to play with, the toy serves two purposes. First, it provides entertainment for the boy or girl, and second, it teaches valuable skills. Children grasping at and holding the blocks can refine their motor skills and become acquainted with new shapes. Playing with the blocks helps develop eye-hand coordination as the child attempts to build a tower or other structure. In many ways, the frequency of playtime differentiates childhood from adulthood. But play -- even into adulthood -- promotes valuable, unexpected benefits that keep both our minds and bodies strong.

This quality of practical play extends throughout much of the animal kingdom. Think about a kitten's fascination with string or a puppy's obsession with a chew toy. Even in fierce wolf packs, the omega wolf, the least respected pack member, serves as the class clown, prodding the other wolves to play in order to relieve stress.

When defining what constitutes "play," there are a handful of factors to meet. First, the action of play doesn't serve a functional purpose and is performed solely for pleasure [source: Burghardt]. For that, consider the difference between a young student assigned an art project to complete in class and a child leisurely coloring at home. Also, play is often a varied form of mimicking a natural behavior, such as a dog chasing after a ball as though it was tasty prey. Play patterns generally are repetitive and instigated when environmental stress is low [source: Burghardt]. Researchers have proposed many positive consequences from play that include improving motor skills, strengthening cardiovascular systems, mimicking adult behaviors and enhancing social communication [source: Burghardt].

The endearing behavior of playful otters can put a smile on most people's faces. You may have seen some of their well-known antics such as sliding, bouncing pebbles on their paws as though juggling, and wrestling. People have even observed otter games of tag. But all this fooling around isn't a waste of time. Like play for human children, otters' playfulness is inadvertently significant.

Otter Play

Researchers have debated whether otter sliding behavior constitutes play or travel.
Researchers have debated whether otter sliding behavior constitutes play or travel.
Michael S. Quinton/National Geographic/Getty Images

The 13 otter species are members of the Mustelidae, or weasel, family and live in and out of water. For example, river otters reside along streams and waterways in freshwater areas within North America, and endangered sea otters inhabit the coasts along the Northern Pacific Ocean. These carnivores eat a variety of seafood, such as fish, frogs, crayfish, crabs and mollusks. They've been spotted playing with their food before eating it. Sea otters are also known to crack open shellfish by hitting them against rocks [source: Defenders of Wildlife].

Although adult animals often play with their babies or interact during breeding season, unadulterated playtime like this is a rarity [source: Beckel]. In addition to young otters, adult otters regularly engage in play. Studies have found a link between prey abundance and time spent playing -- when food becomes scarce, playtime and social behavior generally disappear [source: Tennesen]. Additional otter observations have confirmed that playtime ranks at the bottom of adult otters' priorities, and the mustelids must ensure that they've satisfied their basic necessities of nutrition and shelter first. Perhaps that's why otters who live in zoo habitats goof off so much.

Specific otter play activities are useful for survival. Take sliding, one of the most common otter amusements. Both wild and captive otters will slide down the same mud or ice path repeatedly. Some scientists have theorized that sliding isn't play but rather a functional way to get around. However, a study of wild otters found that the group slid 16 times in less than a minute. Researchers noticed three otters in the study group slid down the same route more than once in a brief time period, indicating that sliding -- while an economical form of locomotion -- is an example of play behavior.

What about non-aggressive wrestling bouts between two otters? In a study tracking otter wrestling habits over multiple seasons, the otters scrapped more often before mating season than during it [source: Beckel]. Interestingly, in cases when male and female otters wrestled each other, the female initiated the play almost twice as often as the male [source: Beckel]. As with the sliding study discussed earlier, wrestling can also be considered a play activity because of repetition and frequency, with some otters wrestling up to 20 times in an hour [source: Beckel]. The interaction between dominant and submissive otters participating in this type of behavior could reinforce social organization within groups.

During all of this sliding and wrestling, something important happens inside of otters. Activity -- whether through playing, hunting or foraging -- promotes spraint production. Spraint is the term for otters' fecal matter, which they regularly deposit in community areas called latrines. With captive otters, spraint production took half the time when vigorously active, compared to inactivity. Scent-marking with spraint helps otters with species identification, communication and location of potential mates during breeding season. Their numerous spraints throughout the day reinforce territories, thereby preventing conflicts.

From these examples, we learn that otter play is pleasurable but useful. Their characteristic playfulness may help otters survive in their varied environments. And for human children and adults alike, watching them at play brings us enjoyment as well.

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Sources

  • Beckel, Annamarie L. "Wrestling Play in Adult River Otters, Lutra Canadensis." Journal of Mammalolgy. Vol. 72, No. 2. May 1991. (Aug. 29, 2008)http://www.jstor.org/pss/1382111
  • Burghardt, Gordon M. "The Genesis of Animal Play." MIT Press. 2005. (Aug. 29, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=6MjCsk_eNJkC
  • Carss, D.N.; Elston, D.A.; and Morley, H.S. "The effects of otter (Lutra lutra) activity on spraint production and composition: implications for models which estimate prey-size distribution." Journal of Zoology. 1998. (Aug. 29, 2008)http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract;jsessionid=A51667DF9352D581CEAE4F6C37CF8BFD.tomcat1?fromPage=online&aid=40979
  • "Otters." SeaWorld Education Department. (Aug. 29, 2008)http://www.seaworld.org/animal-info/info-books/otters/pdf/ib-otters.pdf
  • "Sea Otter." Defenders of Wildlife. (Aug. 29, 2008)http://www.defenders.org/wildlife_and_habitat/wildlife/sea_otter.php
  • Stevens, Sadie S. "Sliding Behavior in Nearctic River Otters: Locomotion or Play?" Northeastern Naturalist. 2005. (Aug. 29, 2008)
  • Tennesen, Michael. "Playing for Keeps." National Wildlife Magazine. National Wildlife Federation. June/July 1993. (Aug. 29, 2008)http://www.nwf.org/nationalwildlife/article.cfm?issueID=96&articleID=1278