When scientists are wrong, they say that otters juggle rocks as a sign of boredom, but that isn’t true!

If I’m being subjective, the otter is the cutest animal on the planet. If I’m not, then it is a carnivorous semiaquatic, aquatic, or marine mammal. The otter family members are named just like the ones in a canine family: the dog, the bitch, and the pups.

There are 13 species of otters. Some of the species live mostly on land, some just use water as the hunting territory, while others live most of their lives in the water. They feed mostly on fish but they won’t say no to frogs, crayfish, or crabs. Some species are shellfish-cracker experts.

The sea otter is a big glutton of clams and sea urchins, which makes it a plankton world savior. Unfortunately, sea otters are an endangered species. People have hunted t for its fur and they are one of the species that most likely will disappear in the next 20 years.

Otters’ bizarre juggling

Otters, no matter the branch they belong to, have a habit that captured the scientists’ attention. They play with rocks. It’s not complex jugglery, it’s more like a chaotic rubbing of the rock against their chest. But just like chaos, there must be an initial condition that makes the juggling necessary.

The scientists tested the behavior to find what is the reason they do that for. Animal behaviorist Mari-Lisa Allison, form the University of Exeter in England concluded that the otters don’t do it for enhancing their food-picking skills. Gordon Burghardt of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, a play behavior analyst said they do it “for pleasure, out of boredom, or both.”

The tests Allison performed were based on the presumption that the otters play to develop skills that would help them pull the bits of meat out of the crevices. So, she tested the semiaquatic otters accordingly. One of the species involved in the study was a fish eater, and another was more of a crustacean eater.

She gave them challenging objects into which food was hidden and expected the otters to find strategies to open them. But it didn’t work, which led her to the conclusion that playing with rocks doesn’t help otters become better crevices meat extractors. And that otters do it for fun.

But maybe it isn’t just that…

So, why do otters juggle rocks?

Biologists share a common fascination for animal playfulness. But their playfulness isn’t much different than human’s need to play. Playing is a natural way of learning. Every game infants and children play is a learning experience. Even the annoying repetitive drop of objects an infant does. They learn, they adapt their body and skills to the environment, they figure things out about the world.

So, if this is true, then there must be more to otters’ rock juggling than meets the eye. Allison’s conclusion that the play and real-life skills are disconnected is wrong. And it doesn’t take too much to see how this could be wrong, just to be a passionate observer of otters.

The connection between rock juggling and real-life skills can be better observed at otters that live in the wilderness. Otters dive at the bottom of the water and bring to the surface rocks. They put them on their chest and they use it as a kitchen tool. They hit the clam against the rock on their chest to crack it open.

So, maybe when the otters live in captivity and juggle the rock to no avail, they do it to let us know they are hungry. Allison observed that the behavior intensified when feeding time was getting close. Or maybe, otters are trying to let us know they would prefer to hunt themselves, that they are wild animals, and they miss being so!

Iulia Lumanare
Iulia Lumanare is an actress and a screenwriter working on the role of a journalist. Writing and playing at the same time.