Confirmation bias may play a part in "verifying" the mythical paw-holding behavior when viewing wild sea otters. Untrained observers are expecting to see it and so these closely rafted sea otters are thought to be clasping paws when, in fact, they aren't. Photo by Gena Bentall
Sea Otter Paw Holding: A Reality Check from the Scientists
By Gena Bentall
The setting is the sea otter exhibit at the Vancouver Aquarium: A pair of captive sea otters (Milo and Tanu) were filmed during a very public display of affection, clasping paws in front of aquarium visitors and soon, the world. Internet dates are a bit untrustworthy, but I’ve yet to find reference to this video earlier than 2011 (let me know if this date is incorrect). Prior to the debut of Milo and Tanu, this sea otter behavior was absent from the public (and professional) lexicon. You will not see mention of paw-holding in sea otter ethograms (a list of behaviors for a specific species), nor the esteemed works of Georg Steller, Karl Kenyon, or Jim Estes. Why? This is simply not a typical or even uncommon behavior of wild sea otters. Based on polls of scientists who having studied wild sea otters for decades (including me), paw-holding is vanishingly rare in the wild.
In the early days of the popularity of the video of Milo and Tanu, the commotion seemed innocent enough. I even sculpted a cake topper for a colleague’s wedding in 2011 (ah, the bliss of myopia). The memes seemed clearly attached to the captive sea otters and floated harmlessly in the social media sea of the sea-otter-hosting aquaria and their followers. Merchandizing was quick to capitalize and socks, throw pillows, pajamas, Valentine’s Day cards—even underwear at my beloved MeUndies.com —flooded the sea otter niche in the marketplace. Still, I am limited to eye-rolling. It was the corruption of “legitimate” information sources that made me begin to take this more seriously. The internets have a cannibalistic habit of feeding on themselves for facts, and even websites perceived as trustworthy were citing “paw-holding” alongside legitimate facts about sea otters like their high metabolic demand (yup, they consume 25% or more of their body weight in food daily) and record-breaking fur coat (up to 1,000,000 hairs per sq inch).
"...sea otters can gather in groups of up to 1,000 individuals, grasping one another’s forefeet to create large rafts or pods."
Contemporaneously, I was working as a sea otter field biologist, spending most of my workdays from dawn until dusk observing and collecting data on wild sea otters on the central California coast, Alaska, Russia, and San Nicolas Island. I could testify that I had never observed this behavior, and I began asking colleagues about their experience with it. I recently made a conservative estimate of the number of wild sea otters I've observed during my heyday of field work: For 13 years of my career before starting with Sea Otter Savvy, I spent 5 or more days a week doing little else but looking at wild sea otters. A low estimate would be 100 sea otters per day, 200 days per year times 13 years, that’s over 260,000 otters without seeing this behavior ONCE. Sadly, I don’t see wild sea otters nearly as much as Director of Sea Otter Savvy, but I still reckon a low estimate of 30 per week, 52 weeks per year for 7 years for 10,920 more wild observations. Full disclosure now, I have seen wild sea otters do it twice since starting Sea Otter Savvy in 2015. That makes twice in the last 20 years so 4 otters out of 270,920 equals an estimate of .001476% of sea otters I have seen holding paws over my two decade career. There are other weird things I’ve seen sea otters do much more frequently that I still wouldn’t include on a basic list of facts about them (e.g. rafting with strips of plastic trash or a myriad of individual examples of poor parenting). One of the most deeply engrained lessons I've learned is that sea otters are individuals with distinct personalities whose quirks do not necessarily apply at a population level.
I’ve informally polled plenty of colleagues about their experience with this behavior over the years but as our first in-person Sea Otter Conservation Workshop at the Seattle Aquarium approached, I saw an opportunity to formalize the poll, gain a little insight about attitudes, and present the results to an audience of colleagues. Below are some of the key findings. The first figure shows results only from sea otter scientists who had greater than 10 years of field experience.
For those who answered "yes" to the above question, I asked how many times they had observed the paw-holding behavior in the wild. The vast majority of these experienced experts from California, Alaska, Canada, and Washington who had seen it, had only seen it 1-2 times.
Below is a simple poll of attitude about this meme. Most respondents across all professional and experience categories were neutral about the paw-holding meme (at least BEFORE they saw my talk) with the scientists who spend 1000s of hours observing wild sea otters objecting the strongest.
Why should YOU care? Here are a few reasons spreading the paw-holding myth is NOT sea otter savvy:
I'll finish up with a lesson in humility. A few years ago, I was being interviewed during a live stream that was being broadcast internationally. We were at the railing at the famed Morro Bay's south t-pier, where a raft of sea otters can be regularly spotted in winter. I had just answered a question about paw-holding with my usual speech about its inaccuracy when the interviewer pointed behind me and asked, "Well, what are these otters doing?" Indeed, a pair of adult females were rebutting my statements with clear defiance—their grizzled paws intertwined—right behind my back. I was consumed by a breathless belly laugh, I love moments like this. Nature is always there to remind us she has few absolutes, and scientists utter the words "never" and "always" at their own peril.
Gena Bentall is the Director and Senior Scientist of Sea Otter Savvy