Science & Technology



Surrogate otter mom at aquarium is rehabilitating pup 'better than any human ever can'

Lila Seidman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

LOS ANGELES — Millie, a fatigued mother of an infant, was ready for a nap.

So she grabbed her baby, flipped it around, threw it on her belly and started grooming its tail — a soothing behavior.

Millie, a sea otter, is rearing what could be the Aquarium of the Pacific’s first orphaned pup to return to the wild. As a surrogate mom, she’s teaching her adopted baby everything she needs to know to fend for herself — in the hopes she can hack it in the ocean in a few months.

“It’s all instinctual, and she’s doing it way better than any human ever can,” said Megan Smylie, sea otter program manager at the Long Beach aquarium.

Their pairing isn’t all about cuddles and relaxation. Just before Millie decided it was nap time, the pup known as 968 was practicing manipulating a crab shell, one of the skills she’d need to survive in the ocean. She’d also need to master foraging for food and grooming her thick, insulating coat.

Climate warriors in limbo


Unlike seals and sea lions, otters need to be taught basic survival skills. And, conservationists say, their survival is a high priority.

They’re so important to maintaining a healthy coastal ecosystem that they’re often called “climate warriors.” Otters chow down on urchins, which voraciously devour kelp. When urchins are kept in check, kelp forests flourish — sequestering carbon and providing food and shelter for fish, shellfish and other life.

Once thought to be extinct, southern sea otters’ rebounding population has stalled, stymied by shark bites and parasites. They dive, hunt and float from south of San Francisco to just north of Santa Barbara, a fraction of their historical range, making them vulnerable to localized catastrophes such as oil spills.

There are now about 3,000 southern sea otters. That’s heartening relative to the total in the late 1930s — about 50 — but a far cry from their 150,000-300,000 peak in the early 18th century. Hunting nearly eradicated them, while protections helped them claw back. The population has stabilized over the last five years.


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