Otters learn from each other, but solve some puzzles alone

Asian short-clawed otters. Credit: Madison Bowden-Parry

Otters learn from each other, but they also solve some mysteries on their own, according to new research.

Scientists from the University of Exeter have given Asian short claws otters “puzzle boxes” containing pets foodand unknown natural prey – whose meat inside was protected by hard outer shells.

The otters in the study, who live at Newquay Zoo and the Tamar Otter and Wildlife Centre, decided whether food was safe and desirable to eat by learning from each other.

But they used their own intelligence – not the example of others – to figure out how to extract the foodstuffs of their protection.

“Much of the research on the foraging and learning abilities of otters has focused on artificial food puzzles,” said lead author Alex Saliveros, from the Center for Ecology and Conservation on campus. Penryn of Exeter in Cornwall.

“Here, we were interested in studying these skills in the context of unknown natural prey, as well as in relation to artificial food puzzles.”

The team studied otters social groups before food testing, which means scientists knew how often each otter associated with other individuals.

Social learning could then be measured by seeing whether close associates learned quickly from each other.

The otters were given five variations of the puzzle box, each with a meatball (a familiar food) visible inside. The food extraction method varied in each version, with solutions such as pulling a tab and opening a flap.

The natural prey was Rainbow trout (which served more as a control given their lack of a protective shell), shore crabs and blue mussels.

Of the 20 otters in the study, 11 succeeded in extracting meat from all three types of natural prey.

“Asian short-clawed otter populations are declining in the wild, and understanding their behavior can aid in the development of conservation and reintroduction programs,” Saliveros said.

“The captive otters in this study initially struggled with natural prey, but they showed that they could learn to extract food.

“Our results suggest that if you give an otter pre-release training, it can pass on some of this information to others.”

The article, published in the journal Royal Society Open Scienceis titled: “Asian short-clawed otters (Aonyx cinereus) in captivity learn to exploit unknown natural resources. prey.”

Puzzled otters learn from each other

More information:
Captive Asian short-clawed otters (Aonyx cinereus) learn to exploit unfamiliar natural prey, Royal Society Open Science (2022). DOI: 10.1098/rsos.211819.

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