Sea otters: Cute, smart, and endangered.
This week, we're shining the spotlight on Canada's most threatened flora and fauna; the ones that are at risk of no longer blooming, crawling, or running within our borders. Climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction are just some of the anthropogenic factors contributing to declining numbers of these plants and animals. Here, we reflect on the importance of species diversity, and what people like you and I can do to help maintain ecological integrity within Canada.
Common Name: Sea Otter
Scientific Name: Enhydra lutris
Where in Canada: West coast
IUCN Status: Endangered
Sea otters are some of the cutest, smartest, and even romantic animals on Earth. Not only do they form strong pair bonds that often last years, but they also hold hands (or rather paws!) while they sleep. Because otters live and sleep almost exclusively in the ocean (although they can sometimes be found on land), they ensure the tides don’t drift them apart from their mates by holding hands throughout the night.
Because of their ocean-centric lives, sea otters are blessed with a fur coat this is one of the warmest and thickest in the animal world. Although these animals are cute, they serve a very important purpose in our oceans.
Sea otters are keystone species, meaning they are essential to the health of an ecosystem. Helping to increase the population of sea otters is not only essential for ensuring these animals never become extinct, but also sea otters serve a key role in maintaining healthy kelp forests along the west coast. By controlling sea urchin populations through their predation, they help to protect kelp beds and the surrounding habitats for many other species including fish, birds and other marine mammals.
Sea otters hunt clams, crabs, sea urchins, snails, and other small fish found in the ocean. The way they eat their food is particularly remarkable because they use tools – like rocks – to open the shells of their prey.
Unfortunately, as amazing as these animals are, they have been considered endangered for the past 45 years. This trend is due in large to the historic fur trade in North America, which saw hunters targeting sea otters for fur accessories popular in Europe. It was largely the commercial value of the sea otter furs that lead to the massive decline, and near extinction, of the sea otter population.
The gestational period of mother sea otters can be up to a year, and the mother gives birth to only one or two pups at a time.
Sea otters are now protected under Canadian and US federal laws. The population is slowly and steadily recovering, especially in parts of British Columbia.
Some of the best ways to protect sea otters in Canada is to sign petitions to the federal government demanding an increase of protections against oil spills in Canadian waters. Oil spills can be very detrimental to sea otters because the oil limits the warmth of their coats and while grooming they can ingest the oil leading to illness or death.
At home, ensuring toxic chemicals or pollutants don’t find their ways down the drains is another important step. Even if you don’t live on the coast or near to ocean, all the water from your home eventually finds its way to the ocean through drains, streams, rivers, and lakes. Refrain from littering or dumping materials into storm drains, dispose of hazardous wastes properly. Use nontoxic household cleaning products, and volunteer to help clean up your local beach or body of water – or create your own clean up crew!
You can learn more about species in Canada on the IUCN Red List by searching here.