Since this story was posted, even more pups have been born to surrogate-reared reared otters in the wild.
In mid April Karl Mayer, animal care coordinator for the Aquarium’s Sea Otter and Research and Conservation organization (SORAC), was out in Elkhorn Slough checking up on a very special pup. Just a few weeks earlier, the pup had been born to an otter, known only as 327, that had been reared behind the scenes at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It was a welcome event—the fourth pup born to a surrogate-reared otter since 2008.
After briefly coming ashore in his small Zodiac, Karl decided to make another round of the Slough to check on other tagged otters. There, in a remote part of the Slough, he discovered another surrogate-reared otter, number 339, with a tiny pup of her own, born less than 24 hours earlier.
Correction: make that five pups born to surrogate-reared otters in the wild!
Eat, sleep, repeatThese very young pups lead lives of continuous coddling and sleeping. Lying on mom’s stomach, they’re painstakingly groomed. Afterward, it’s time for a nap. Occasionally, mom will leave her pup to float while she makes forays for small clams. After a quick snack—you guessed it: more sleeping.
Did I mention that these pups sleep a lot?
“At this point the female is conserving energy and doing a moderate amount of foraging, to allow the pup to eat and sleep,” says Karl. “She’s staying close to shore and living off existing energy stores.” But before long the pups will trade their fluffy coats for adult fur and start to follow their mothers on dives. “The mother and pup will become more of a functional unit,” says Karl, “and they’ll go for larger prey items.”
But for now, at least, everything is going according to plan. “The pups look healthy, bright and alert,” says Karl.
Five pups and counting
Since 2005, SORAC staff have been raising and releasing stranded pups through the surrogate program. The goal is to evaluate surrogate-rearing by studying behavior and survival of pups after release. The hope is that these pups assimilate into the wild population, survive to maturity and produce offspring of their own.
“With the surrogate program we’re establishing that the methods we use to rear stranded pups enables them to reproduce as part of the wild population,” says Karl. “And that means not just giving birth, but getting their pups through the dependency period and weaned. That’s our benchmark for our rehabilitation.”
There’s another benefit, too. Just having that many tagged animals in the wild (there are currently seven) provides a “great look at the permanent residents of the slough,” says Karl. “We can follow them for a long time. And we know that the group here is thriving, in contrast to some other groups in the area.”And there may be even more good news to come. Karl believes there are at least two more surrogate-reared otters that could give birth in the coming months, providing even more SORAC success stories.