Sea otters may be the internet’s new cats. But while the aquatic Enhydras are peak adorable and rival their feline counterparts for internet space, they are also critical as a keystone species for our marine ecosystems. This is why September 23 through 29 has been designated “Sea Otter Awareness Week” by the various institutions who study, support, and educate the unruly masses about the conservation issues sea otters face on a daily basis. 2018 marks the 10th year in which Americans have celebrated the ocean’s most photogenic creature.
Before we celebrate, some sea otter facts: There are 13 different species of sea otters globally, with the U.S. being home to two different species: sea otters and the North American river otter. Weighing in between 10 and 90 pounds, otters have some interesting mammal relatives that include skunks, weasels, wolverines, and badgers. In fact, sea otters are the largest member of the weasel family. Most sea otters hail from Alaska, and they have been a protected species under the International Fur Seal Treaty of 1911, passed after they were almost hunted to extinction. They have also been covered under the Endangered Species Act since the 1970s.
What do these fetching creatures eat? Almost 25 percent of their enter body weight every single day, including mussels, crabs, urchins, and clams, the last of which they’ve been known to crack open with rocks while floating on their backs. They find this craft fare by using their whiskers and digging with their paws, often times diving up to 250 feet down to find their ongoing meals.
How do they stay warm this deep? Otters have the thickest fur of any animal, and unlike other aquatic mammals they do not have a layer of blubber, instead relying on their fur to provide that critical layer of insulation.
As a keystone species, otters are critical to the way certain ecosystems operate because of the impact they have on the environments in which they exist. For example, by culling the sea urchin population, they prevent underwater kelp forests from becoming over-grazed. Here’s why this is important: kelp protects coastlines and absorbs a vast amount of the world’s carbon dioxide. Otters are also a “sentinel species,” insomuch as they indicate the health of the environment where they are found, acting as a potential warning about the state of our seas and the inhabitants within.
In conclusion, we should celebrate otters not just because of their ability to break down our internet defenses and make us feel something like hope in these otherwise bleak times, but because of their vast contribution to the natural world. And besides, let’s be honest — they’re just adorable.
PS: A group of sea-otters is called a “raft,” since they essentially wrap themselves in seaweed to prevent themselves from floating away from one another. How cute is that?