Researchers from the University of Exeter examined the behavior of otters to see if they could learn to hunt and forage on their own once they were released into the wild. They did this using puzzle boxes filled with food.
Problem-solving for food
Looking at Asian short-clawed otters, researchers gave their subjects from the Newquay zoo and the Tamar Otter and Wildlife Center puzzle boxes containing familiar and unfamiliar foods. The five boxes with familiar food, like meatballs, each had a different method for opening and getting the food, like pulling a string.
The other boxes had natural food unfamiliar to domesticated otters, crabs and mussels, and the otters had a hard time with these. They did not know if the crabs and the mussels were safe to eat. Researchers observed that the otters worked in groups, in a way, and watched each other as they opened a box, to make sure the food was safe to eat. Once they saw that the food was safe and tasty, the otters would copy each other’s behavior to get at the other boxes.
Of the 20 otters in the study, 11 of these managed to eat all different types of unfamiliar natural prey from the boxes.
“Much of the research into the extractive foraging and learning capabilities of otters has focused on artificial food puzzles,” said the lead author, Alex Saliveros, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation on Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall.
Otters are very social creatures and learn safe or valuable behaviors from their family members and friends.
Researchers hope that studying how otters approach acquiring and eating unfamiliar food might inform future training for otters being re-released into the wild. After spending too much time in captivity, some otters might not have the skills to fend for themselves in their natural habitats.
“The captive otters in this study initially struggled with natural prey, but they showed they can learn how to extract the food,” said Saliveros. “Our findings suggest that if you give one otter pre-release training, it can pass some of that information on to others.”