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Otters Learn From Their Friends When Solving Puzzles

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Rachael Funnell

Social Editor and Staff Writer

clockNov 11 2020, 00:01 UTC
When it comes to meatballs, it pays to have friends. Georgina Hume

When it comes to meatballs, it pays to have friends. Georgina Hume

A new study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science has revealed that when it comes to puzzles short-clawed otters get by with a little help from their friends. Led by researchers from the University of Exeter, UK, the study challenged otters to a task that when completed would reward them with food. They found otters could remember the solution when tasked with the same challenge months later, and that they were able to learn from successful friends. The findings reveal new insights regarding long-term memory and social learning in these animals, as well as providing some perennially pleasing footage of otters grabbing things with their adorable hand-paws.

The puzzles at hand (or paw, as it were) were made up of transparent containers baited with delicious meatballs inside. They could be opened by twisting and pulling lids and handles to free the snack, child's play for these tool-wielding jugglers. The otters were tested using the same puzzles several months apart to see how or if their performance differed the second time around. The researchers found that on their second go with the puzzle, the otters solved them 69 percent faster compared to their first try. This finding demonstrates their capacity for long-term memory in remembering the most effective way to extract the meatball.

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The otters’ performance also showed evidence of "social learning". When an otter cracked the puzzle, its closest buddies quickly figured it out too. The researchers tested this by first establishing the relationships between the otters (sadly no orangutan friends featured in the study) and finding out which of them spent most of their time together. This meant they could observe how problem-solving techniques passed through the otter groups by seeing whose buddies picked up on their problem-solving techniques.

Otters were able to recall their meatball retrieving tekkers months after their first exposure to the puzzle. Georgina Hume

"Asian short-clawed otters are declining in the wild, partly due to overfishing and pollution affecting the crustaceans and small fish they feed on," said lead author Alex Saliveros, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation on Exeter's Penryn Campus in Cornwall, in a statement. “Being able to catch new prey in new ways, and to pass on that knowledge, could be important in terms of conservation.

"Our study is the first to show evidence of social learning and long-term memory in Asian short-clawed otters — which may be good news in terms of their adaptability and future survival."


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