16 Playful Facts About Otters

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These adorable aquatic mammals are clever, chatty, and oddly aromatic.

1. THERE ARE 13 SPECIES OF OTTERS, AND JUST ABOUT ALL OF THEM ARE DECREASING.

An otter looking up from the water.
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Only one otter species seems to be thriving, and that's the North American River Otter. The other 12 otter species were recently identified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as having decreasing populations, and five otter species are already on the endangered list. Among the endangered are the sea otters along the Californian to Alaskan coasts, which are threatened by "environmental pollutants and disease agents." Others, like the marine otters of South America, have had their numbers reduced because of poaching, as well as environmental concerns.

2. ZOROASTRIANS THOUGHT THE OTTERS TO BE NEARLY SACRED CREATURES.

Otter seemingly smiling in the water.
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This ancient religion considered otters to be the dogs of the river or sea and had strict rules forbidding the killing of otters. It was thought that otters helped keep water purified by eating already dead creatures that might contaminate the water source if they were allowed to rot. Zoroastrians would also hold ceremonies for otters found dead in the wild.

3. OTTERS HAVE VERY DISTINCTIVE POOP, AND THAT SCAT HAS ITS OWN NAME.

Two otters in the water.
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Otters use their dung—known as spraint—to communicate with other otters. The mammals like to keep things organized within their communities and will designate certain areas to be used as latrines. Spraint scents can vary, but often are (relatively) pleasant—one expert described them as not "dissimilar to jasmine tea." Spraint composition is unique to each otter, and the creatures can identify each other by the smells. Scientists suspect otters may even be able to determine the sex, age, and reproductive status of the spraint dropper just from a quick whiff. And since otters have superb metabolisms and can easily eat up to 15 percent of their body weight each day, there's a lot of spraint to go around.

4. OTTER MOMS ARE TOTALLY GAME FOR ADOPTION.

Mother otter holding baby otter up in the water
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In 2001, a female otter at the Monterey Bay Aquarium gave birth to a stillborn pup on the same day a stranded pup was discovered in the wild nearby. The aquarium staff had previously tried raising pups themselves but found that hand-raised otters became too attached to humans to be released back into the wild. So instead, they dropped the pup in with the female otter, and she immediately went into mom mode. The aquarium has since devised a system of hand-rearing pups for the first six to eight weeks—mostly for bottle feeding purposes—before handing the pups off to female otters for raising. At six months, the pups are released back into the wild with generally strong results.

5. THEY HAVE THE THICKEST FUR OF ANY MAMMAL IN THE ANIMAL KINGDOM.

A close-up of otter fur.
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Otters can have up to one million hairs per square inch. There are two layers of fur—an undercoat and then longer hairs that we can see. The layers manage to trap air next to the otter's skin, which keeps the otters dry and warm and also helps with buoyancy. Otter pups have so much air trapped in there, they actually can’t dive under water, even if they want to.

6. AN OTTER IS SOMETIMES ONLY AS GOOD AS HIS TOOLS.

An otter carrying a crab it caught
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Otters love to eat shelled animals, like clams, but they aren't equipped with the strength to open their food without some help. Therefore, they are big on tools and will often use rocks to help crack into dinner. While they hunt for food underwater, they’ll often store a rock in the skin under their arms for later use.

7. OTTERS ARE POPULAR IN NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURES, BUT FOR VARYING REASONS.

An otter standing along the water's edge
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Some tribes consider the otter to be a lucky animal and a symbol of "loyalty and honesty." But some, particularly in present-day Canada and Alaska, viewed the river otter "with awe and dread" and associated the creatures with the undead and drowning. Some cultures even forbid eating the creatures and were offended when colonial Europeans began hunting the river otters and selling their furs.

8. GIANT OTTERS ARE SUPER CHATTY.

Giant otter sunning on a rock
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In 2014, a study of giant otters found that the river-dwellers have 22 distinct noises they make for different situations. On top of that, pups have 11 of their own calls that they intersperse with "infant babbling." Among the most notable calls: a "hum gradation" used to tell otters to change directions and a "Hah!" shout when a threat is nearby.

9. OTTERS AND HUMANS CAN COLLABORATE.

Bangladeshi man prepares to send his trained otters in to go fishing.
MUNIR UZ ZAMAN, AFP/Getty Images

In Bangladesh, otters help fisherman maximize their haul. For centuries, fisherman have been training otters to act as herders and chase large schools of fish into the nets.

10. DRONES MAY HELP SCIENTISTS BETTER STUDY OTTERS IN THE WILD.

An otter swimming underwater
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Keeping an eye on otters in the wild is a tricky task. In the past, observers have usually set up telescopes on shore to try and monitor otters at sea. Otters won't act naturally with humans nearby, and using a telescope on a boat can get tricky in the rollicking ocean. But now, scientists are using unmanned drones with cameras to get an aerial look at otters in their element, making it easier to monitor the creatures as they dive for food and go about their day.

11. SEE A GROUP OF OTTERS? THAT'S A ROMP. OR A BEVY.

Six otters sitting together.
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Or a family or a raft. Otter groups go by a few different monikers, all of which are fairly unique to that crew. Generally, a group of otters on land will go by a romp, while a group hanging in the water is called a raft.

12. OTTERS ARE BIG ON PLAY TIME, AND MAKING SLIDES IS AMONG THEIR FAVORITE GAMES.

An otter shaking water off of itself
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Otter families are usually limited to pups and their mothers, and these duos will spend most of their time either feeding or sleeping. In the downtime, though, otters love to play and will often build themselves slides along the banks of rivers.

13. CALIFORNIA SEA OTTERS DIVIDE THEMSELVES IN DIET GUILDS.

An otter in the water eating a clam
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Once thought to be gone from the area completely, southern sea otters—known as California sea otters—have been making a comeback in recent years. But with their numbers hovering around just a few thousand, researchers have kept a close eye on the population and their studies have revealed an interesting social structure. The otters, which need to consume 25 percent to 35 percent of their body weight every day in order to maintain their metabolism and keep themselves warm in the cool waters, are divided into three "dietary guilds": Deep-diving otters that dine on abalone, urchins, and Dungeness crab; medium divers who subsist on clams, worms, and smaller shellfish; and those that stay in shallower waters, feeding on black snails.

14. A ZOOLOGIST WHO WAS STRANDED AFTER A SHIPWRECK WAS THE FIRST TO DESCRIBE SEA OTTERS.

An illustration of an otter
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German zoologist and botanist Georg Wilhelm Steller was the first to scientifically describe numerous new animals on the 1741 explorative voyage from Russia. Aboard the St. Peter, Steller and other 18th-century explorers crash-landed on modern-day Bering Island after getting separated from its sister ship. Over the course of a rough winter, he meticulously documented many species, and while some have since gone extinct (like a sea-cow he described that was hunted into extinction), the adorable otter was among his initial discoveries.

15. BABY OTTERS ARE BUOYANT, BUT THEY CAN'T SWIM ON THEIR OWN.

A mother and baby otter floating in the water
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A mother will often wrap the babies in kelp to keep them in one place while she hunts. Or, she might rely on human resources and otter ingenuity to find a makeshift "playpen" for her pup.

16. THEIR BEHAVIOR ISN'T ALWAYS ADORABLE.

Two otters with teeth bared in the water.
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Like many animals, otters sometimes behave in ways that aren't exactly within the bounds of what humans would consider morally acceptable. Even if you find them otherwise adorable, otters' mating habits will no doubt make your stomach turn.

Male otters' mating techniques are violent. They bite their female partner's face during copulation to keep her from slipping away, leaving her with substantial facial wounds. It's not uncommon for female otters to die as a result of these aggressive encounters, either through drowning or from their wounds becoming infected. Male otters have also been known to violently copulate with other species—most notably, baby seals [PDF]. The behavior doesn't stop when the seals die from the trauma. Otters have been known to guard and have sex with the bodies of their victims for up to seven days after they've died.

Scientists hypothesize that these seemingly counterproductive mating habits might be the result of a population imbalance. In California's Monterey Bay, where scientists observed otters trying to copulate with the week-old bodies of dead baby seals, there are far more male otters than females. Facing a lack of female partners, male otters may be engaging in what researchers call "misdirected sexual activity." The area in the bay where the scientists observed the most otter-on-seal mating sessions was also where there was a high population of transient male otters, ones that, unlike more dominant males, don't have an established territory filled with potential mates. In the absence of females of their own kind, then, they turned their typical sexual responses toward the seals. Nature, unfortunately, isn't always pretty.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

20 Black-and-White Facts About Penguins

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iStock/fieldwork

Happy Penguin Awareness Day! To celebrated, here are a few fun facts about these adorable tuxedoed birds.

1. All 17 species of penguins are found exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere.

A group of penguins on an iceberg.
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2. Emperor Penguins are the tallest species, standing nearly 4 feet tall. The smallest is the Little Blue Penguin, which is only about 16 inches.

Three emperor penguins
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3. The fastest species is the Gentoo Penguin, which can reach swimming speeds up to 22 mph.

A gentoo penguin swimming underwater
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4. A penguin's striking coloring is a matter of camouflage; from above, its black back blends into the murky depths of the ocean. From below, its white belly is hidden against the bright surface.

Penguins swimming in the ocean
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5. Fossils place the earliest penguin relative at some 60 million years ago, meaning an ancestor of the birds we see today survived the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.

Emperor penguins with chicks
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6. Penguins ingest a lot of seawater while hunting for fish, but a special gland behind their eyes—the supraorbital gland—filters out the saltwater from their blood stream. Penguins excrete it through their beaks, or by sneezing.

Penguin swimming in the ocean
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7. Unlike most birds—which lose and replace a few feathers at a time—penguins molt all at once, spending two or three weeks land-bound as they undergo what is called the catastrophic molt.

Gentoo penguin chick molting
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8. All but two species of penguins breed in large colonies of up to a thousand birds.

A colony of king penguins
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9. It varies by species, but many penguins will mate with the same member of the opposite sex season after season.

Two chinstrap penguins
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10. Similarly, most species are also loyal to their exact nesting site, often returning to the same rookery in which they were born.

Magellanic penguin nesting in the ground
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11. Some species create nests for their eggs out of pebbles and loose feathers. Emperor Penguins are an exception: They incubate a single egg each breeding season on the top of their feet. Under a loose fold of skin is a featherless area with a concentration of blood vessels that keeps the egg warm.

Penguin eggs
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12. In some species, it is the male penguin which incubates the eggs while females leave to hunt for weeks at a time. Because of this, pudgy males—with enough fat storage to survive weeks without eating—are most desirable.

A group of emperor penguins and chick
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13. Penguin parents—both male and female—care for their young for several months until the chicks are strong enough to hunt for food on their own.

Penguin chick and parent on a nest
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14. If a female Emperor Penguin's baby dies, she will often "kidnap" an unrelated chick.

Three emperor penguin chicks
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15. Despite their lack of visible ears, penguins have excellent hearing and rely on distinct calls to identify their mates when returning to the crowded breeding grounds.

Gentoo penguins
iStock/Goddard_Photography

16. The first published account of penguins comes from Antonio Pigafetta, who was aboard Ferdinand Magellan's first circumnavigation of the globe in 1520. They spotted the animals near what was probably Punta Tombo in Argentina. (He called them "strange geese.")

A group of magellanic penguins on the seacoast
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17. An earlier, anonymous diary entry from Vasco da Gama's 1497 voyage around the Cape of Good Hope makes mention of flightless birds as large as ducks.

A cape penguin in South Africa
iStock/ziggy_mars

18. Because they aren't used to danger from animals on solid ground, wild penguins exhibit no particular fear of human tourists.

Man videotaping a penguin in Antarctica
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19. Unlike most sea mammals—which rely on blubber to stay warm—penguins survive because their feathers trap a layer of warm air next to the skin that serves as insulation, especially when they start generating muscular heat by swimming around.

Penguin swimming in the ocean
iStock/Musat

20. In the 16th century, the word penguin actually referred to great auks (scientific name: Pinguinus impennis), a now-extinct species that inhabited the seas around eastern Canada. When explorers traveled to the Southern Hemisphere, they saw black and white birds that resembled auks, and called them penguins. 

13 Fascinating Facts About Pallas’s Cats

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iStock.com/NEALITPMCCLIMON

Far across the world, an elusive—and adorable—wildcat called the Pallas’s cat (also known as the manul) roams the grasslands and steppes of Central Asia and Eurasia. Get to know the flat-faced, furry kitty, which has been featured in memes and viral videos and recently received its own wildlife preserve in Asia’s Altai Mountains.

1. It's named after naturalist Peter Pallas.

German naturalist Peter Pallas first described the furry wildcat in 1776. He named the kitty Felis manul, and theorized that it was an ancestor of the Persian cat, due to its round face, luxurious coat, and stocky body. (He was wrong.)

2. Its scientific name means "ugly-eared."

Later on, the cat's scientific name was changed from Felis manul to Otocolobus manul—not exactly the most flattering moniker, since Otocolobus is Greek for “ugly-eared.”

3. Its unusual ears come in handy.

Some may consider the Pallas’s cat’s ears to be ugly, while others might think they’re adorable. Arguments aside, the cat’s round ears—which sit flat on the sides of its head—are one of the feline's most distinguishing features. As Crystal DiMiceli, a former wild animal keeper at Brooklyn's Prospect Park Zoo, explains in the above video, having low-positioned ears helps the cat conceal itself—they don’t poke up to reveal the animal's position while it's hiding or hunting.

4. It has a dense, plush coat.

The coat of the Pallas's cat is its true crowning glory. It’s longer and denser than any other coat belonging to a member of the Felid species (growing in even heavier in the winter), and the undercoat on its belly is twice as long as the fur covering the rest of its body. The shade ranges from silvery grey during the winter to a darker, red-toned hue during warmer months. (Some cats are also red, particularly in Central Asia.) Its broad head is streaked and speckled with dark markings, and its bushy tail is banded with stripes and a dark tip. These markings tend to appear darker during the summer.

5. Its fur blends with its habitat, which conceals it from predators.

Pallas's cats live in areas ranging from Pakistan and northern India to central China, Mongolia, and southern Russia. According to Wild Cats of the World, by Luke Hunter, its body isn’t adapted for snow, so it sticks to cold, arid habitats—particularly grassy or rocky areas, which help conceal it from predators—at elevations of around 1500 to nearly 17,000 feet. The stocky cat isn’t a fast runner, so when it senses danger, it freezes and crouches flat and motionless on the ground, and its fur helps it blend in with its surroundings.

6. Pallas's cats aren't fat—they're just furry.

Pallas's cats typically weigh less than 12 pounds, and they’re usually only 2 feet or less in body length—meaning they’re not that much larger than an ordinary house cat. Yet their dense coat of fur makes them appear much larger.

7. Their pupils are round instead of vertical.

Pallas's cats do share one feature in common with larger wildcats, like lions and tigers: their eyes. Their pupils are round, whereas a house cat's pupils are vertical and slit-shaped. Wondering why some cats have round pupils while others have vertical ones? A 2015 study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that animals’ pupil shapes might indicate their role in the predator/prey food chain. They analyzed 214 species of land animals (including cats), and noted that species with vertical pupils tended to be ambush predators that were active during both day and night. In contrast, species with vertical pupils were often “active foragers,” meaning they chase their prey. Also, predators that are closer to the ground, like house cats, were prone to vertical pupils, whereas larger wildcats had round ones. Pallas’s cats are small, and they are primarily ambush hunters, so the jury’s still out on whether the study's findings hold true for all creatures.

8. They subsist mostly on pika.

A Pallas's cat sticks its tongue out
iStock.com/Nikolai Vakhrushev

Pallas's cats are ambush hunters and spend much of their time hunting pika, a small mammal, and other critters like gerbils, voles, hares, ground squirrels, birds, and young marmots. Pika typically make up more than 50 percent of the cat's diet. 

9. They may be distantly related to the leopard cat.

Peter Pallas thought the animal was related to the Persian cat. (We think it looks like a Maine Coon and a Scottish Fold had a baby and weaned it on steroid milk.) However, experts have uncovered evidence that the wildcat’s nearest—yet still pretty distant—relative might be the leopard cat.

10. They's not social animals.

The Pallas's cat is notoriously elusive and spends much of its time hiding in caves, crevices, or abandoned burrows.

11. They don't seem to like each other much.

A pair of Pallas's cats size each other up
iStock.com/eli77

Pallas's cats may be adorably fluffy, but they aren’t the world’s sweetest, most cuddly creatures. In fact, they’re very aggressive. Case in point: In The Wild Cat Book, authors Fiona and Mel Sunquist recount an anecdote provided by Bill Swanson, the Cincinnati Zoo’s director of animal research. Zookeepers thought that a litter of newborn Pallas's cats were having difficulty breathing, but “when they listened closely, they realized that the noise they were hearing was the kittens growling and hissing at each other—before they had even opened their eyes!"

12. Their mating period is brief.

Pallas’s cats mate between December and March; the females typically give birth between the end of March and May, after a gestation period of 66 to 75 days. Pallas’s cats usually give birth to three or four kittens, but litters can sometimes have as many as eight kittens. Kittens become independent by four to five months, and when they reach nine to 10 months, they’re mature enough to reproduce. 

13. They're classified as "near-threatened."

It's estimated that Pallas's cats can live up to six years in the wild, but because of predators and other dangers, their lifespan is likely to be half this length. In captivity, they’ve been known to survive for nearly 12 years.

In 2002, the International Union for Conservation of Nature classified the Pallas’s cat as “near-threatened,” and that status remains today. Many factors contribute to their low numbers, including farming, agricultural activities, mining, and poisoning campaigns aimed at reducing pika and marmot populations. They're also often killed in traps meant for wolves and foxes, or by domestic dogs. And despite international trading bans and legal protections in some countries, they're often hunted for their fur. (The cat's fat and organs are also used to make traditional medicines.) 

Scientists don't have enough data to estimate the Pallas’s cat's population size, but due to their scarcity and the many threats they face, experts believe that their numbers have dropped by 10 to 15 percent over the past decade or so. To better understand—and protect—the animal, an international team of conservationists recently secured a 12-mile swath of land in Sailyugemsky Nature Park, which lies in the Altai Mountains between Kazakhstan and Mongolia, as a sanctuary for the rare cat. There, they hope to monitor its population, study its habitat, and build a database of information detailing encounters with it. 

Additional Source:
Wild Cats of the World by Luke Hunter

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