The novel that I am currently developing is set in a future where changes to the environment have caused the extinction of several crustacean and fish species in the ocean, which led in turn to the extinction of many of the marine birds and mammals that we know today. Fortunately, not all marine mammals were driven to extinction. Enhydra lutris, better known as the sea otter, managed to survive the mass extinctions as their primary diet included sea urchins and shelled mollusks.
The fuzzy face and playful attitude make otters a popular animal to photograph, and in recent years some breeds, such as the Asian Small-Clawed Otter, have become more popular as exotic pets in parts of Southwest Asia. All otters belong to the scientific family Lutrinae, a branch of the Mustelidae family, which also includes badgers, weasels, and wolverines. As a group, they are versatile carnivores, dining on anything from shellfish to small birds and mammals. While all thirteen species of otter are adorable, intelligent, and playful, only one species is capable of living its entire life afloat.
An ancestor of the modern Sea Otter is believed to have diverged from the other species of otter somewhere around five million years ago and is different enough from the other species that many scientists believed them to be more closely related to seals until genetic analysis was completed in the 1980s. They are the heaviest of all the otters with females weighing between thirty and seventy pounds and males sometimes weighing in at a hundred pounds or more. Unlike other marine mammals, however, they are not endowed with a layer of blubber to keep them warm. Instead, they have a dense coat of fur, the densest fur in all of the animal kingdom with between 100,000 to 400,000 hair follicles per square centimeter of skin. The coat is made up of a short layer of soft, insulating fur, covered by a layer of longer guard hairs, which helps to keep water away from the shorter layer underneath. It requires a great deal of maintenance in order to retain the ability of the guard hairs to repel water and otters that are unable to keep their guard hairs properly groomed run the risk of becoming either chilled or waterlogged, a dangerous prospect for an animal that lives in the ocean. Their incredible fur nearly spelled the extinction of these animals in the late 18th and early 19th century. Populations of Sea Otters were much greater in the 1700s, believed to be around 100,000 to 150,000 members, but were reduced by hunting to around 1,000 to 2,000 specimens by the time that laws were developed to protect them in 1911.
While most otters enter the lakes, rivers, and oceans around their homes mainly to hunt and play, the Sea Otter also sleeps, eats, and gives birth in the water. They spend a great deal of their time floating on their backs, leaving their paws free to hold on to their young or to manipulate their food and eat. The sea otter is more than capable of chasing down fast moving fish for dinner, but they usually prefer to harvest sea urchins, crabs, clams, and abalones from the sea floor. In order to harvest their favorite foods, many Sea Otters have developed the ability to dislodge their prey and crack open hard shells by using a rock, making them one of just a few animals known to regularly use tools. It is not a skill that they are born with, it is one that they typically learn from their mothers, and if they don’t learn the skill by the time they are an adult, they are unlikely to pick it up. While any old rock will do in a pinch, some tool using otters tuck specific rocks in the natural pouches or pockets that they have developed, which are located under each arm. The pouches, unique to the Sea Otter, are also used to store food that they collect along the ocean floor so that they can carry more to the surface.
I’m not sure where or how all of this information will fit into my novel or into the short stories that are based in the same futuristic world, but I’m sure it will. Eventually.