Otter see, otter do: Social learning for survival

Otters of the smooth-coated variety have a complex social structure and rely upon one another to find food and for basic survival. It only makes sense that they would learn from comrades in their tight social circle; that is exactly what researchers recently uncovered when they tested otters’ problem-solving skills with puzzles.



Otters learn by copying each other

Otters can learn how to solve puzzles by watching and copying each other, new research shows.


“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.”

-Zosia Ladds, field researcher, Anglia Ruskin University


Scientists created a series of puzzles baited with food, and found smooth-coated otters watched and copied each other’s problem-solving techniques — with young otters more likely to copy than their parents…


“Our results suggest smooth-coated otters adopt a ‘copy when young’ strategy…The offspring in our study learned how to solve these puzzles much quicker than their parents — more than six times faster…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.”

-Dr. Neeltje Boogert, Centre for Ecology and Conservation, the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall


Many otter species are classified as threatened, vulnerable or endangered, and the researchers say their study may help improve efforts to reintroduce otters into the wild…


Journal Reference: Zosia Ladds, William Hoppitt, Neeltje J. Boogert. Social learning in otters. Royal Society Open Science, 2017; 4 (8): 170489 DOI: 10.1098/rsos.170489