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Research Shows Otters Learn From Others How To Overcome New Foraging Challenges

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right. We're going to talk otters now. Yes, we do consider all things on this program.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

You otter to know.

CHANG: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: Otters are pretty clever with their paws. In the wild, they use them to crack open shells for food. And now, thanks to researchers at the University of Exeter in England, we know something else.

CHANG: We now know that Asian short-clawed otters use social cues when learning to solve novel foraging challenges.

SHAPIRO: In other words, otters are teachers.

CHANG: Lead researcher Alexander Saliveros says, previously, it was thought the creatures only used trial-and-error to find food.

ALEXANDER SALIVEROS: My initial reaction was surprise, really.

(SOUNDBITE OF OTTERS CHATTERING)

SHAPIRO: That's the chatter of some of the types of otters that were used in this study playing around at a Belgian zoo. In the wild, they eat mostly clams, mussels and crabs. The experiments in this study were conducted with captive otters, so the scientists built puzzles with a different kind of tasty treat inside.

SALIVEROS: Small plastic boxes with various kind of opening flaps and levers to pull, all kind of sections to twist, that contained beef meatballs.

SHAPIRO: And what self-respecting otter wouldn't want a meatball?

CHANG: Exactly. The scientists found that the otters appeared to learn from their companions when deciding whether or not to tackle the puzzles. And they sometimes picked up tips on how to solve them.

SHAPIRO: The otters also remembered tricks to unlocking the meatballs months later, a sign of long-term memory. The results were published by The Royal Society.

CHANG: Saliveros says this finding could help scientists keep the species from disappearing in the wild, where otters' food sources are growing scarce.

PETE RICHERSON: This paper falls into a pattern in which many, if not most, social animals show some signs of social learning.

SHAPIRO: Professor Emeritus Pete Richerson of the University of California, Davis, studies animal evolution. And he says, not long ago, it was thought that social learning in species other than humans was rare.

RICHERSON: Students of animal social learning, like the authors of this study, have completely reversed my impression of the field. They've shown, for example, that even ants and fish have a respectable amount of social learning.

CHANG: And why do we care exactly? Well, according to Richerson, the climate is changing, and evolution can't always keep up. So animals that can learn from others survive. They also learn to trust their peers. And that certainly seems like a winning strategy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.