Sea otters' tool use leaves behind distinctive archaeological evidence

ScienceDaily | 3/14/2019 | Staff
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Sea otters are an especially captivating marine mammal, well known for their use of rocks to break open shells. Sea otters are estimated to have once numbered between 150,000-300,000 individuals and their range stretched from Baja California, Mexico, around the northern Pacific Rim to Japan. Their numbers were dramatically reduced by the fur trade. In California, the southern sea otter population was reduced to around 50 individuals, but a massive conservation effort has resulted in increasing their numbers to around 3000 today. However, the southern sea otter is still considered threatened.

Sea otters are unique for being the only marine mammal to use stone tools. They often use rocks to crack open shells while floating on their back, and also sometimes use stationary rocks along the shoreline as "anvils" to crack open mollusks, particularly mussels. A joint project including the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the University of California, Santa Cruz, among others, has resulted in a first-of-its-kind interdisciplinary study published in Scientific Reports, combining ten years of observations of sea otters with archaeological methods to analyze sea otter use of such anvil stones, also known as emergent anvils.

Researchers - Years - Sea - Otters - Mussels

Researchers spent ten years between 2007-2017 observing sea otters consuming mussels at the Bennett Slough Culverts site in California. Their analysis identified that mussels were the most common prey eaten at the site and were the only prey for which the sea otters used stationary anvil stones. The sea otters used such stones for about 20% of the mussels they consumed.

Interestingly, careful analysis of the stationary anvil stones using archaeological methods showed that their use resulted in a recognizable damage pattern that was distinguishable from what would be caused by human use. For example, the sea otters preferentially struck the mussels against points and...
(Excerpt) Read more at: ScienceDaily
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