Otters and Their Personalities

Contributor: Morgan Haney. Lesson ID: 13338

Otters are loved by humans because of the unique ways they socialize with one another. Find out why otters build such deep social bonds, and learn more about the world's smallest water mammal!


Life Science

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Quick Query

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Watch Newborn Sea Otter Pup Snuggles Up With Mom While Floating from Inside Edition:

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This behavior, with a mother snuggling her baby on her chest as they float together, is exactly why humans love otters. They're social and active, and it's clear that their social structures are complex and meaningful.

Explore some of the science that explains why otters do the things we find so cute!

The narrator in the above video comments on some of the mother's behavior towards her pup, which shows us a glimpse of the science behind otter behaviors.

These sweet cuddles actually serve a biological purpose, as do most of the cute things that otters do.

First, this lesson will provide a little background on the otter. Then, it will explore some of the behaviors that we love in otters and explain why each mannerism is important to the otter's survival.

Species of Otters

Otters are semi-aquatic mammals, meaning that their bodies are capable of moving on land or in the water, and they usually live in a combination of both.

There are 13 species of otters in the world today, and they look very different from one another. The type of otter that is most easily recognized by humans is the sea otter. This is the otter with most of the adorable behaviors you probably associate with otters in general.

sea otter

The sea otter pictured above is floating on its back. These otters live mostly in the water, specifically the northern Pacific Ocean, and they are highly expressive, which endears them to humans.

They are also the most social species of otter, and many of the behaviors presented in this lesson are specifically associated with sea otters.

The other type of otter that you've likely seen is the North American river otter, pictured below:

North American river otter

These otters have a very different body type from sea otters, which allows them to split time more equally between land and water.

As you can guess from the name, river otters enjoy freshwater, although they can survive in saltwater. They are found in the wild in Canada and the United States.

Several other popular species of otters are pictured below:

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The remainder of this lesson will focus specifically on sea otters.

Sea Otter Quick Facts

  Type: marine mammal
  Habitat: kelp forest
  Range: Southern sea otters are found along the central coast of California, and northern sea otters are found on the coasts of Washington state and Alaska.
  Diet: They eat crabs, urchins, clams, mussels, and other invertebrates, and northern sea otters also eat fish.
  Size: Southern sea otters are around 50 lbs for females and 70 lbs for males, while northern otters can be 70 lbs for females and 100lbs for males. They both can grow up to four feet long.


Sea Otter Behaviors

Holding Hands

otters holding hands

Humans love that sea otters hold paws, especially while they sleep. This behavior is called rafting, and in the wild, you can see large groups of 15 to 20 otters rafting together, all linked by holding paws.

Otters engage in rafting as a protective behavior. In the wild, there is strength in numbers. Rafting allows otters to stay together even while they sleep so that no one otter floats off by itself and becomes an easy target for predators.

Mothers Holding Pups

mother sea otter with her pup

Mothers float on their backs with their pups held on their chest, which looks like some very cute snuggling. This is also a protective tactic because it keeps the pup with the mother.

In fact, pups have an early coat that keeps them afloat and does not allow them to dive. This way, if a mother does need to leave her pup to find food, the pup will be floating where she left it when she comes back.

Mothers will even wrap their young in a piece of kelp while they dive for food so the pup doesn't float away.

Rubbing Their Faces

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Otters will frequently rub their faces, which to humans looks like the otter is hiding or being bashful. In fact, otters rub their entire coats frequently as a grooming technique.

Otters have the densest fur of any mammal, and this fur keeps them warm in cold waters. Unlike other sea mammals, they don't have blubber to regulate their body temperature, so their fur is particularly important.

Keeping their fur groomed and clean with this rubbing technique ensures that the coat stays healthy and full and keeps the otter warm.

Pups Wrestling

Two Rescued Otter Pups from Oregon Zoo (little sound):

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Especially as pups, otters have very playful and social personalities, and they love to wrestle with each other.

This wrestling is not aggressive or combative. It's just a very energetic form of play, and it's the way that young otters learn social cues and build relationships with each other.

Young otters will spend large portions of their day engaged in this play, and it bonds them to other otters. Just like with rafting, these bonds are not only enjoyable but can also keep otters safe from predators.

Once you've familiarized yourself with these otter behaviors and the reasons they occur, move on to the Got It? section to identify some of these behaviors and test your otter knowledge!

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