Figure One

Science. Communication. Community.

Your Otter is Out

Heading home from the zoo, the mayor paused at a corner, waiting for a green light.  Looking down, he noticed an otter waiting patiently to cross the street as well.

by Rebecca Widiss

Do I look like a tree-climber? – An otter innocently investigating a tree branch. Credit: Jan Reed-Smith

An otter innocently investigating a tree branch. (Image credit: Jan Reed-Smith)

Like teenagers slipping out after curfew, some zoo animals are escape artists. The best become legends among zookeepers, if not the public. And their success illustrates the perils of putting animals in a box—not just physically, but metaphorically.

The New England Aquarium once had trouble with a “hiking” octopus. At night, says aquarium architect Mike Shakespear of Thinc Design, the octopus would hoist himself out his tank, using a back-end opening designed for staff. He’d amble over to another tank and go fishing. Aquarium officials were mystified by the missing fish. In fact, they had to put out a surveillance camera to find the culprit. (Incidentally, they soon found a simple solution as well. Like aging baseball players, octopi suckers and Astroturf don’t mix. So, Shakespear says, it’s common practice these days to put a bit of putting green around octopi tanks.)

Octo Astroturf -- Aquariums discourage octopi from roaming with sucker-resistant turf. Credit: Mike Shakespear

Octo Astroturf — Aquariums discourage octopi from roaming with sucker-resistant turf. (Image credit: Mike Shakespear)

North American river otters are also notorious sneaks, says Jan Reed-Smith, who has twenty years as an otter-keeper under her belt. Without naming names, she told me a few of her favorite tales. One zoo’s otters liked to run around in the woods at night, she says. By chance, the staff arrived early enough one morning to catch the critters red-footed. “When the otters noticed their keepers, it was like, ‘Oh my god! We’re busted,’” says Reed-Smith. They scampered back into their enclosure (which was soon modified). A feisty otter at a different, urban zoo began taking daytime strolls. Twice she beat staff back to her exhibit, so as not to reveal her escape route. Her luck ran out when the town’s mayor spotted her waiting patiently to cross the road outside the zoo’s entrance.

Extreme Ottering – Tree climbing isn’t typical otter behavior. As zoos provide richer environments, otters have more opportunities to prove the exception! Credit: Bethany Gates

Extreme Ottering – Tree climbing isn’t typical for otters. But as zoos offer richer environments, more otters are taking it up. (Image credit: Bethany Gates)

I’ve always assumed something biological makes otters excel at escaping, but Reed-Smith set me straight. True, otters are blessed with claws, long tails that serve as counterbalances, and exceptional arm mobility. (This last asset, btw, is thanks to their lack of a clavicle, or breastbone.) But the key to their success is being stereotyped. People think of otters as aquatic creatures, says Reed-Smith. They simply don’t anticipate otters climbing trees or, in the case of the forest-frolickers, standing up on their hind legs—while balancing on a floating log—to be in position to leverage themselves over an outer exhibit wall.

These are just harmless anecdotes. But they spotlight the seductive power of simple binaries like land vs. water. And they call to mind a rule of thumb I picked up in a college sociology course: By all means, look for a group’s salient traits… Then look for their opposites.

Note: Widiss worked with Mike Shakespear at Thinc Design.

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This entry was posted on January 15, 2013 by in Research and tagged , , .
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