Colchester Zoo helps researchers discover unknown social behaviours in otters

Otters at Colchester Zoo have been part of a new research discovery. Picture: ATUL SINAI BORKER

Otters at Colchester Zoo have been part of a new research discovery. Picture: ATUL SINAI BORKER - Credit: Archant

Ground-breaking research has shown otters learn from their peers to solve tasks, thanks to observations carried out at Colchester Zoo.

The zoo was one of three locations used by researchers for the study, which found captive smooth-coated otters observed each other performing tasks before copying behaviours.

The animals were given foraging tasks and had to retrieve different types of food from containers.

These included sealed ones with clips, or ones with screw-top of pull-off lids.

The study also found that young otters learned how to solve puzzles more than six times faster than their parents.

Zosia Ladds, who carried out the field research, said: “It was amazing to see otters copying each other to unscrew containers and undo clips to get to their reward: sprats or shrimp provided great motivation.

“They have complex social relationships, even within families, and their group dynamics are always changing.”

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The research also showed that Asian short-clawed otters did not copy each other, despite the fact researchers expected to find social learning behaviour among both species.

The team came to observe the otters at Colchester Zoo from Anglia Ruskin University, the University of Exeter, and the University of Leeds.

Dr Neetlje Boogert, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter, said: “Our results suggest smooth-coated otters adopt a ‘copy when young’ strategy.

“The order in which the young otters solved the puzzles followed the strength of their social ties. This indicates that the juveniles copied those siblings they spent most time with.”

Colchester Zoo is home to more than 260 species at its site, in Maldon Road, including leopards, elephants and penguins.

It also keeps exotic birds, fish, and has a specially-built area for orangutans.

The research has since been published in a science journal, and as well as Colchester Zoo, the other locations were Paradise Wildlife Park and New Forest Wildlife Park.

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