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Smart Animals: Sea Otters Used Tools Even Before Dolphins and Humans Did, Study Says

Mar 23, 2017 11:24 AM EDT
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Unassuming sea otters are more intellectual than previously thought. This is according to a new study whose findings suggest that sea otters were ahead of dolphins in using tools.

In a recent study published by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, it was discovered that sea otter tool use is innate and has very small chance of linkage to genetic ties. Previous studies suggest that there's a common lineage between sea otters to Indio-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, which the new study nullifies.

A study of 100 sea otters in the coast of California suggests that ancestors of modern sea otters from millions of years ago could have already been using tools to open their food. This behavior is being compared to bottleneck dolphins, who are also seen using tools but were observed much later about 200 years ago, according to BBC.

 "Sea otters and bottleneck dolphins both use tools and they are ecologically similar, so we thought they might have a similar genetic pattern," said Katherine Ralls, scientist emeritus at the Center for Conservation Genomics and the study's lead author, in a statement. "Surprisingly, what we discovered is that sea otters that most frequently use tools are no more related to each other than to the population as a whole."

Some species of sea otters are known for using rocks and other tools to break open their meals, including abalones and other kinds of shellfish. Based on the study, sea otters use tools 40 percent of the time to cut open their food.

The findings of the new study will help scientists understand animal lineage and history, focusing on the world of "tool use" in marine animals, according to Nanzy Rotzel McInerney, the paper's co-author.

In order to conduct the study, McInerney said they obtained large amounts of genetic information from minuscule tissue samples from different species. In this study, they analyzed data gathered from tagged specimens.

The findings prove that the generic patterns of tool-using sea otters and dolphins differ and the contrast could be due to the development over thousands or even millions of years.

The study aims to further understand and to discover how long sea otters have been using tools by looking at fossils. Investigations on fossils and other physical indication could prove that sea otters used tools before dolphins and even humans.

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