Development of behavioral milestones in rehabilitated Southern Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris nereis) pups at Monterey Bay Aquarium

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Kurtz, Jaclyn
behavioral; rehabilitated; Southern Sea Otter; Enhydra lutris nereis; Monterey Bay; Environmental Sciences
report description
This project involved a thorough, first-time analysis of recorded “Behavioral Milestone” data for rehabilitated southern sea otter (Enhydra lutris nereis) pups in the Sea Otter Research andConservation (SORAC) program at Monterey Bay Aquarium. Fifty mutually exclusive developmental milestones, intended to quantify specific stages of behavioral development for both males and females otter pups, were identified, operationally defined and grouped into six “Behavior Categories”. Age of onset and the total number of developmental milestones were identified for each pup until 8 weeks of age (n = 53). The total population achieved three key milestones that often predict post-release success if performed proficiently before introduction with a surrogate: self-sufficient grooming, diving to the bottom of the trough, and retrieving food items from the water. Age class 5 was associated with the highest diversity of milestones achieved, while age classes 1 and 8 represented the most limited diversity of milestones achieved. Pre-swimming behavior decreased in initial onset over the study period, while diving and foraging behavior increased over time. Females (n = 31) and males (n = 22) exhibited 49 and 47 milestones, respectively, of the comprehensive list of 50. Females displayed foraging behavior earlier than did male pups but did not exhibit any swimming behavior during age class 1, in which males achieved significantly higher milestone counts than females.Results were also compared to wild and captive literature on pup development, indicating similar developmental patterns among these different environments. These findings will be used as an updated baseline reference for behavioral monitoring in the SORAC program in order to better understand pup behavioral ontogeny and thus increase the likelihood of pup survival and reproduction post-release. A final product of this project included a new SORAC template for recording developmental pup behavior data that can be utilized across various wild and captive studysettings.