Sea Otters and Their Sense of Smell (It Helps in Finding and Tasting Food!)

When you look at a sea otter’s large, black-colored nose, don’t you just want to boop it with your finger? I, for one, absolutely want to, but I know that sea otters are wild animals that need their space at all times.

Still, their adorable noses that complete their charming look probably have more function than making us fall in love with the sea otters even more, right?

Please stick around and join Floofmania as we poke our noses around the sense of smell that the heart-shaped cherry on top of a cute little face provides to the adorable marine mammal. 

Do Sea Otters Have A Good Sense Of Smell?

Yes, sea otters have an excellent sense of smell.

Smell or olfaction occurs when a chemical binds to a receptor in the nostril and sends a message to the brain to interpret how we should perceive and react to a scent.

The Sea Otters’ Nose Structure Allows Them To Smell Well

Due to the lack of studies, scientists don’t completely understand olfaction in sea otters. But their extensive nasal turbinates generally suggest that they have an acute sense of smell.

We can visualize these structures by looking inside a sea otter’s nostril, like Dr. Mike Murray of the Monterey Bay Aquarium did with the help of a rhinoscope.

In the picture that he took, you can see the long, light-pink-colored bowling pin-like structures. These “pins” are actually turbinate bones. They are protected by the pink nasal epithelium or the special covering of the internal nose.

We, humans, also actually have these pinkish turbinates inside our noses that help filter the air we breathe. You may try to take a peek at them using a mirror. But it can be hard to visualize them without a special instrument like an otoscope which only a doctor usually has. 

Another proof that having well-developed turbinates is paramount to having an excellent sense of smell is when we compare a sea otter’s nose to a pinniped. Pinnipeds, namely seals, sea lions, and walruses, have reduced nasal turbinates. 

As a result, these mammals have poor olfactory sensitivities and have difficulty distinguishing between smells, unlike sea otters.

Each Sea Otter Seems To Have Its Own Scent Preference

Sea otters need their sense of smell to survive in the wild

But even captive and rescued sea otters in marine facilities like the Vancouver Aquarium have shown just how important their sense of smell is to them. These otters have their own distinct and even strong reactions to different types of scents!

For example, Elfin, one of the most beautiful sea otters in the aquarium, loved how its handler’s hair smelled and, interestingly, coffee!

Katmai, another female sea otter, hates how funny Jell-O smells to her. She even tries to cover or push the smell away by pawing ice cubes over the Jell-O.

The sea otters in the aquarium also seemed to hate the smell of apples collectively.

The Sea Otter’s Sense Of Smell Plays A Role In Its Sense Of Taste

In humans, our sense of smell plays a role in about 80% of the things we taste.

The primary purpose of the sense of taste is to find out if the food we put into our mouths is safe or not. We would likely swallow our food fast and even ask for another helping if our palettes agree with the taste of the food and deem it “safe“. 

Otherwise, our taste buds would probably alert us if a piece of food is spoiled or unsafe to consume. So we usually get the urge to immediately spit it out, even if we’ve just put it in our mouths or have taken a few bites of the food.

In the same way, sea otters are one of the few marine mammals that actually chew their food. Others usually use their teeth to hold onto their prey before swallowing it whole instead. 

Taste is a chemical reaction occurring after a food portion touches the taste buds on the tongue. As a result, the reaction produces any or a combination of the five different kinds of taste:

  • Saltiness
  • Sourness
  • Sweetness
  • Bitterness
  • Savoriness (Umami)

Researchers have observed that sea otters have a great sense of taste, so they think that the otters must also have an acute sense of smell.

Sea Otters Are Picky Eaters

Sea otters need to eat shellfish and other invertebrates worth 25% of their body weight daily. They tend to have highly specialized and personalized diets they even inherit from their moms. 

In the wild, it would not be unusual to find a sea otter munching on just one type of clam or sea urchin. Meanwhile, captive sea otters have access to various seafood under human care. 

Despite having plenty of options, most rescued sea otters will have their own food preference. For example, Wally, a sea otter blinded after suffering from a gunshot wound and became unfit to be released back to the wild, had a particularly expensive taste. 

Walter understandably spent most of his life in the wild, so it took some time before he adjusted to other food, such as crab. Before that, he would only eat a geoduck clam, a giant surf clam widely considered a delicacy for its location and price. 

The aquarium taking care of Wally would spend up to $30,000 annually to buy the clam off the Asian markets to keep him alive!

Sea Otters Could Possibly Taste Bitterness

Researchers are particularly interested in an animal’s ability to taste bitterness. Bitter foods tend to be the most toxic ones for the body. So an animal with sensitive taste buds is more likely to survive than one that is less sensitive to impending harm that bitter or harmful compounds may cause. 

Sea otters living in the Alaskan gulf tend to have habitats and ranges strongly influenced by red tide. A red tide occurs when algae bloom, and they, in turn, produce a toxin called domoic acid

This acid is lethal, and unfortunate chemical exposures can damage the brain by causing seizures, memory loss, confusion, and even death. Fortunately, researchers think sea otters might be one of the few gifted animals that can detect the toxin by taste.

Sea otters appear to know whether the fish or clams in their hunting grounds are contaminated with the paralyzing toxin. It is also why sea otters don’t live in the southeast of the gulf, wherein red tides frequently occur.

Sadly, dolphins and pinnipeds (like sea lions) can’t detect bitterness, so they are especially vulnerable to red tides. 

Also, due to climate change, stronger and more intense storms draw more river runoff flow, increasing nutrients that help algae bloom more frequently. The same goes for the melting glaciers due to global warming

Can Sea Otters Smell Underwater?

No, sea otters don’t seem to be able to smell underwater because they need to close their noses to keep the water out.

A researcher, Charlie, conducted an experiment where a river otter actually found the dead trout he had hidden in the muddy river near his house one night. 

The otter couldn’t have been able to use its whiskers because the dead fish didn’t move anymore. It was also hard to use vision in murky waters to locate the fish. 

So the river otter might have used its nose to find the trout that night. Although, unlike their River Otter cousins, no evidence points out a sea otter’s capability to do the same yet. 

Sea otters also use their eyes to forage underwater like river otters. Both also use their whiskers to sense movement in the water, like a fish’s tail.

Olfaction in sea otters and other marine mammals continues to be understudied and baffles many scientists today. So it could still be possible that sea otters and their other otter cousins can also smell underwater like the river otters.

What Do Sea Otters Use Their Sense Of Smell For?

Sea otters use their excellent sense of smell to communicate with other otters, detect dangers and threats, and find food. 

Biologists have often observed sea otters actively sniffing out the air, water surface, and fellow otters. Adult male sea otters might also use their noses to identify olfactory cues pointing to where females ready for mating (estrus) are possibly hanging out. 

Can Sea Otters Find Food By Smelling?

Sea otters are intelligent creatures that know how to find food and even ensure that it is safe to eat through their sense of smell! 

As discussed earlier, sea otters use their sense of taste to stay away from domoic acid. Meanwhile, some researchers believe that sniffing out contaminated shellfish is enough for the otters to avoid the neurotoxic acid. 

Like their taste, healthy clams, abalones, and mussels will likely smell mild and fresh. On the other hand, rotten and spoiled shellfish will smell foul and very pungent. 

Sea otter handlers in aquariums and facilities also notice that sea otters sniff each bite of their food before they put it into their mouths. 

Biologists even consider sea otters as sentinel species. They help humans distinguish contaminated shellfish because most of the seafood they eat is also harvested for human consumption. 

So when fishermen notice sea otters avoiding an area or food source, they’ll know not to get the shellfish from there too. 

Sadly, detecting toxins may not be enough, especially when the otters don’t have another food source available. Sea otters don’t often travel far and must conserve energy to fulfill their dietary needs. They can slowly take in and concentrate contaminants, and it can be too late for them at times:

How Is Smelling Important For Sea Otter Communication?

The sense of smell is vital for sea otters to communicate so they can: 

  • mate or reproduce 
  • greet each other
  • and express themselves.

Biologists believe that male sea otters have an acute olfactory sensitivity that they use to smell the scents coming off from females to find a mate. In California, they observed that females in estrus release water-borne scents that the males may follow across the water to get to them. 

Before sea otters can enter a territory or raft, researchers have observed them routinely performing a form of greeting between one another. In specific, an otter first sniffs the other sea otters within the area before it proceeds to move or jerk its head from side to side.

Of the many vocalizations that sea otters can emit, contented coos might be the cutest of them all! In aquariums, several sea otters have been known to coo while eating. Sea otter handlers often hear them coo when they’re satisfied with their safe and delicious meals, especially pups:

How Can Sea Otters Sense Danger With Their Noses?

In the wild, sea otters use their noses or sense of smell to detect danger even more so than their sense of sight. In fact, many scientists have already proven that sea otters can live and function relatively well despite losing their sight. 

For example, researchers noticed that the sea otters they were trying to study quickly spotted them from miles away when the wind was blowing toward them or their location. 

Sea otters may be alarmed or get startled by what they smell before seeing the actual threat. So their noses are extra helpful in avoiding their natural predators and humans

What Does A Sea Otter’s Nose Look Like?

A sea otter’s nose is diamond-shaped, completely hairless or bare, black, and large. Some would even refer to their nostrils as heart-shaped.

Its nose pad (also referred to as the planum nasale) has sensitive skin (like its unfurred forepaws), which aids in foraging. Specifically, the otter might use its nose to nudge or dig the sand on the seafloor and locate prey like clams when it can’t rely on its vision. 

The sea otter’s nostrils are also supported underneath by dense hyaline cartilage. It helps in directing the flow of incoming air from the environment. 

A little additional fact:

Tiny, cigar-to-crab-shaped nasal mites might infest a sea otter’s nose. They often remain inside the nasal cavity and commonly affect captive otters or those living near seals. An otter will stay asymptomatic when they’re few, but high parasite loads can badly affect the sea otter’s lungs.

Can Sea Otters Close Their Nostrils Underwater?

As mentioned earlier, sea otters routinely close their nostrils when underwater to keep the saltwater out. 

To prevent inhaling the seawater, they take a deep breath and then close their nose (as well as their small, flappy ears) before plunging into the water for a swim or dive.

Sea otters can only hold their breaths for less than 5 minutes before they need to come back to the surface and inhale air. 

Why Do Many Sea Otters Have Scarred Noses?

Sea otters get their noses scarred either from mating or fighting each other. 

Although sea otters don’t usually fight, some play-wrestling, mock fights, and fights between males because of their mating territories can become aggressive and ugly sometimes. Even if they’re not common, some sea otters might bite other otters’ noses too hard and scar them in the process.

Albeit still not that common, female sea otters getting scarred noses after mating are more likely to happen in the wild. When a male and female copulate, their playful banter can quickly turn aggressive when the male tries to hold the female by grasping her nose.

While this may make the mating activity more likely successful in getting a female pregnant, the female otter may suffer from a swollen and bleeding nose. 

Hopefully, the female sea otter’s nose heals after a few weeks, although scarred (and often turns pink), and not get infected instead. 

On a brighter note, researchers now try to use a sea otter’s pink-scarred nose to identify each otter and track its health and movement. 

Author: Gra

Hello! My name is Graciola Galo, but my friends call me “Gra” – so can you! Aside from being a dog lover, my bachelor’s degree in biology has helped me develop a deep appreciation for animals. I look forward to learning more about all kinds of wildlife in every future article I write for Floofmania and I aspire to impart that same awe and wonder to you, too!

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