National Geographic : 1971 Oct
lick the pup's fur and rub it with nimble fore paws. Soon the pup awoke. Together the ani mals somersaulted in the water and dived for food. The pup surfaced first, and I could see that it was nibbling on a brownish starfish. The mother burst into view ten feet away, half a dozen sea urchins and three large rock oysters clasped to her chest. The pup swam to her side and snatched away the largest urchin. Pressing the urchin between its paws, the infant broke the shell. With its lower incisors and tongue, the pup scooped up the soft egg masses within. The mother, meanwhile, used a canine tooth to pry open a rock oyster. Twisting sharply with her paws, she separated the valves and dropped the empty one to her chest. The other she held in both paws and licked up the orange-and-white body mass. Then, clutching the remaining urchins and oysters, she rolled over and washed herself. Mating Is an Aquatic Affair The waters I viewed were frequented most ly by females, alone or with young. Adult males came only to seek mates. One bright afternoon, I watched an otter its heavy neck and shoulders marking it as an adult male-approach a female. She was dining while floating on the surface. Her sleeping pup floated nearby. The male dived, came up between the mother and pup, and clasped the female about the chest. The female, uninterested in courtship, slapped his face with her hind feet. The male remained persistent. Again diving, he grabbed her, and they rolled about together while the awakened pup screamed in fright. Repeatedly the female snapped at her aggres sor. Finally, he gave up. The male turned to a more willing partner, a lone female who preened his fur as they curled together on a rock. Slipping with her into the water, the male held her nose with his teeth, and they mated. When they had fin ished, the female's nose was bloody (page 537). As the days passed, I waited in vain for an otter to break a mollusk against a rock on its chest, as California otters often do (pages 530-31). Perhaps, I speculated, the Alaska sea otter differs from the California variety. Back in Seattle, I mentioned my theory one day to Ford Wilke, my Fish and Wildlife Service field director. "Why don't we try it with Susie?" Ford responded. We dropped a small flat stone and a dozen clams into Susie's pool. Without hesitation, Susie dived and brought up the stone under one foreleg and two clams under the other. Placing the stone on her chest, she gripped a clam between her forepaws and smashed the two objects together-at once shattering the clam and my theory. The test had unfortunate consequences. Susie grew overly fond of her rock, never letting it out of her sight. "I'm afraid we're going to have to take the rock away from her," zoo director Ed John son told me one day. "I'll show you why." At the pond we found Susie enthusiastically pounding the rock against the cement edge. "She's already taken off nearly half an inch of concrete in some places," he said. "But that's not the whole story. We've kept a cover KODACHROME BY RONCHURCHI() N.G.S. Water-slicked otter accepts a squid. Naturally tame until made wary by man's harassments, otters rarely snap at humans except when their lifesaving coats are touched.