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Videos abound on the internet of otters “juggling” by rotating rocks quickly between their paws, but there hasn’t been a lot of research on why otters juggle.

A paper published today in Royal Society Open Science sheds some light on the odd otter behavior.  

Scientists found evidence that otters juggle more when they are hungry. The researchers hypothesized that otters who juggle more often would be better at solving food puzzles, but they did not find conclusive evidence to back up that theory. Otters that are good at juggling did not appear to be smarter in other ways. 

Mari-Lisa Allison, the lead author on the paper, observed 48 otters living in different groups at four zoos over six months. The otters weren’t tagged, so she had to tell them apart using physical characteristics — like grey hairs and tail shape. Most of the otters were Asian small-clawed otters, but some were smooth-coated otters. Allison said many people don’t realize there are 13 different species of otters.

Otters in the study juggled more frequently before being fed — when the animals were hungry —  than they did after eating. Allison said from what she observed, the increased juggling seemed to be an expression of excitement about being fed — like the otters’ squealing. 

That would make sense since juggling is generally thought of as a form of play. However, Allison could not rule out the possibility that juggling is a stress response. She said she thinks that interpretation is less likely but important to consider for otter welfare.

Otters in the study were given a variety of food puzzle tests. Food was stuffed into tennis balls, medicine bottles, and legos to see how quickly otters could extract the treats. The tests were supposed to mimic shellfish that otters eat, with the hypothesis that juggling might allow the otters to practice using their hands and make them faster at extracting food. In reality, the frequent jugglers were not faster at solving the man-made tests. Allison said more evidence is needed to rule out this hypothesis, because there could be other factors at play, like the puzzles being a poor proxy for shellfish.

Young otters and seniors — those over 11 years old — were observed juggling more often than middle-aged otters. Allison said that might be for the same reason that older humans engage with hobbies more than middle-aged adults — they have more time.

“When you grow up and have children, you have less time (to play), but when you retire and your kids leave you get to go back to doing your own interests,” she said.

Her paper also cites research on Japanese macaques, which found that animals played with objects for longer continuous bouts as they aged. One theory is that the play helps prevent cognitive decline in older animals.

Evidence is currently limited on whether otters juggle in the wild. Allison said this might be because they are too busy foraging to play, or because they are elusive so humans aren’t able to observe them juggling.

“It is important to highlight (otters) and get that interest growing so more research is done,” Allison said.

I’m a science contributor writing about animals for Forbes.com. I was raised in Utah with five siblings and numerous cats, dogs, horses, goats, chickens and other rescue

I’m a science contributor writing about animals for Forbes.com. I was raised in Utah with five siblings and numerous cats, dogs, horses, goats, chickens and other rescue pets. I graduated from Yale University last May with a Psychology B.S. During college, I researched child development through the Yale Infant Cognition Center, edited the city section of the Yale Daily News and studied Chinese. I have written science articles about animals for The Salt Lake Tribune and Seven Days. I currently work as a local reporter in the Bay Area. In my free time, I love hiking and trying new “healthy” dessert recipes.

Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/saratabin/2020/05/05/scientists-arent-sure-why-otters-juggle-but-the-videos-sure-are-cute/

World news – US – Scientists Aren’t Sure Why Otters Juggle, But The Videos Sure Are Cute

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