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.

How to Clean Your Dog's Ears (and How Often You Should Be Doing It)

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iStock/Group4 Studio

When it comes to keeping our dogs looking their best, we usually do all the normal pampering—giving them baths, cutting their nails, brushing their teeth, and grooming their fur. But one task that often gets overlooked is cleaning their ears.

Ear infections are a common ailment in dogs—particularly in breeds that have long, droopy ears (like cocker spaniels or basset hounds) or those that grow hair in their ear canals (as poodles do). A foul or yeasty odor in the ears is one quick way to tell if your pup might have an ear infection; redness and discharge, or frequent head-shaking or scratching, are some other signs that there might be an issue. If your dog seems to be in pain or cries when you touch around their ears, you'll want to schedule an appointment with your vet for as soon as possible.

Even if your dog doesn't seem prone to ear infections, it's important to keep their ears clean in order to keep it that way. According to Dogster, you should be cleaning your dog's ears anywhere from once a week to once a month, depending on the breed. Your vet can give you a recommendation for how often you should be cleaning your pup's ears, and even a quick lesson on how to do it yourself at home.

If you're uncomfortable undertaking the task on your own, your vet can do it for you—as can a dog groomer. But if you want to give it a try on your own, it's actually pretty simple. All you really need are some cotton balls and a vet-approved ear cleaner (your vet may sell one, or be able to tell you the nearest pet supply store or website that does).

According to Dogster, you should apply the dog cleaner to your dog's ear with a cotton ball or gauze. Squeeze a bit down the ear so that it makes its way into the ear canal, then gently massage the dog's ears near the base in order to break down any debris and/or ear wax. If your dog needs to shake their head, let them. Then, use the cotton ball or gauze to wipe the inside of the ear clean. (It may take a few swipes to clean the ear out fully.)

Though you may be tempted to use a cotton swab, just as with your own ears, this is a bad idea. "I generally don’t like to put Q-tips down the ears because I don’t like to push stuff down," Dr. Jeff Grognet, co-owner of Mid-Isle Veterinary Hospital in Qualicum Beach, BC, Canada, told Dogster. "This dilutes the ointment, but also, in some cases, the ointment doesn’t even get through to the skin inside the ear."

Cleaning your dog's ears is definitely easy, and important enough that there's no excuse not to make it a part of your regular grooming routine.

10 Fun Facts About Corgis

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iStock/Lisa_Nagorskaya

You already know they’re cute, compact, and smart. But there’s a lot more to these beloved little dogs that you might not know. 

1. THERE ARE TWO DISTINCT BREEDS OF CORGIS.

There are two types of Welsh corgis: the Pembroke Welsh corgi and the Cardigan Welsh corgi. They are considered two entirely different breeds because they come from different ancestors. Their remarkable resemblance is a result of crossbreeding in the 19th century.   

If you’re trying to tell the two breeds apart, the most notable difference is that the Pembroke does not have a tail. On top of a tail, Cardigan Welsh corgis also have rounded ears, while Pembrokes generally have pointy ears. 

2. THE CARDIGAN WELSH CORGI IS THE OLDER BREED.

Photo of a Welsh Corgi Cardigan
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A warrior tribe of Celts brought the corgis in their aboriginal form to Cardiganshire, Wales around 1200 BCE, which means corgis have been in Wales for over 3000 years. This early breed was a member of the Teckel family of dogs that went on to include the dachshund. 

3. PEMBROKE WELSH CORGIS HAVE A CONSIDERABLE HISTORY AS WELL.

welsh Corgi Pembroke sitting in autumn leaves
iStock/HelenaQueen

Although no one knows for sure, most agree that the Pembroke Welsh corgi dates back to 1107 CE when Flemish weavers migrated to Wales. The Spitz-type dog bred with the original Cardigan corgis to produce the Pembroke Welsh corgis we know today. 

4. THE KENNEL CLUB ORIGINALLY LUMPED THE TWO BREEDS TOGETHER.

The two types of corgis were registered as one in 1925, leading to a lot of stress among breeders. Often a judge would favor one breed over the other, which would lead to controversies at dog shows. After nearly a decade of (pretty adorable) strife, the breeds gained separate recognition in 1934. 

5. CORGIS WERE ORIGINALLY USED AS HERDERS.


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The Welsh used the short dogs as herders as early as the 10th century. In those days, pastures were considered common land, so there were no fences. In order to keep a farmer’s cattle together and separated from other herds, corgis would nip at their legs to herd them. Because of their closeness to the ground, corgis had easy access to the cows’ ankles and were difficult targets of the retaliatory kicks of cattle. 

6. ACCORDING TO WELSH LEGEND, FAIRIES RIDE THEM.

Some say that the corgi is an “enchanted dog” favored by fairies and elves. At night the magical creatures would use the dogs to pull their carriages and be their steeds in battle. According to legend, the markings on a corgi’s coat suggest the faint outline of a saddle and harness. 

7. THE ROYAL FAMILY LOVES THE PEMBROKE WELSH CORGI.


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Queen Elizabeth II has had more than 30 corgis in her lifetime. Though her last two corgis—Whisper and Willow—have both recently passed away, she does still have two dorgis (corgi/dachshund mixes) named Candy and Vulcan.

The Queen met her first corgi when King George VI brought a male pooch home from a kennel in 1933. Named Dookie, the dog was an immediate hit with the future queen and her sister, Princess Margaret. 

After a second corgi named Jane entered the picture, the canine couple had a litter of puppies, two of which were kept. The Queen received another dog named Susan for her 18th birthday—from there, the collection of corgis really gained momentum. Some of the royal corgis bred with Princess Margaret’s dachshund Pipkin to create dorgis.

8. CORGIS WERE USED TO PREDICT PRINCESS CHARLOTTE'S NAME.

In the spring of 2015, when Prince William and Kate Middleton were awaiting the birth of their second child, people are already taking bets on the name. Gambling company Ladbrokes used corgis in an attempt to predict what the name would be. The company’s ad featured 10 corgis wearing vests with different names in a race to predict what the name of the child would be. The corgi sporting the name Alexandra won the race. Princess Charlotte was born on May 2, 2015.

9. CORGI MEANS "DWARF DOG" IN WELSH.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, cor means dwarf and gi means dog.  

10. SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA HOSTS A ENORMOUS CORGI MEETUP.


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SoCal Corgi Beach Day started as a humble meet-up event at Huntington Beach in 2012. The first event attracted just 15 dogs; the last one had more than 1100 corgis in attendance. The event happens three times a year.

An earlier version of this article ran in 2015.

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