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This is an article from Curious Kids, a series for children. The Conversation is asking kids to send in questions they’d like an expert to answer. All questions are welcome – serious, weird or wacky!


Why do sea otters clap? Is it fun? – Alex, age 5, Melbourne.

Hi Alex. Those are some great questions. Sea otters are one of my favourite animals.

Something we have to ask ourselves when trying to work out why an animal does something is whether or not the behaviour is natural.

If you’ve been lucky enough to observe a sea otter clapping in a zoo or aquarium, you might have been watching an animal that has been trained to clap by its human keepers.

Sea otters can sometimes be taught to clap in zoos and aquariums.

But what about wild sea otters? Do they clap too, and if so, what might it be for?


Read more: Imagine This: a new podcast tackling tricky questions from inquisitive young minds


How do wild sea otters use their hands?

Sea otters are fascinating creatures. They are air-breathing mammals and yet spend almost their entire lives at sea. They swim mostly with their back feet, which leaves their hands free to do other things while swimming about.

In the wild, sea otters sleep out on the water. To stop themselves drifting away in their sleep, they use their hands to hold onto seaweed (or each other), creating a raft of animals floating together. When resting during the day, they’ve even been seen covering their eyes with their paws to help them sleep.

Sea otters sometimes hold hands while floating. Wikimedia, CC BY

Sea otters also use their paws to groom their fur. They have one of the thickest fur coats of any animal, which helps them to keep warm in the freezing waters of the North Pacific Ocean. To keep their coat healthy, they use their hands to rub down their fur, trapping air against their skin to stay warm and dry. This can look like clapping their hands against their sides.

Sea otters groom with their hands. Wikimedia, CC BY Sea otters sometimes clap their hands wild grooming their fur.


Read more: Curious Kids: Why don’t dogs live as long as humans?


But the most interesting thing sea otters do with their paws happens while feeding. After catching hard-shelled prey like shellfish or sea urchins, sea otters will break open the shell by hitting it against a stone resting on their belly. Otters have even been known to have a favourite stone that they carry around in their armpits. As well as looking like they are clapping when doing this, you can even hear the “clap” sound of the hard shell hitting the stone!

So, even for wild sea otters, “clapping” may play a useful role in both grooming their fur and preparing their food.

Is clapping fun though? Hopefully, one day you will meet some sea otters and you can ask them yourself.


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