Everything About A Sea Otter’s Teeth, Bite, and Jaw

We all know what sea otters are like; floofy aquatic mammals who swim around and do all kinds of adorable things. They seem pretty harmless, right? Well, for the most part, they are, so long as you stay away from their teeth. 

While they look innocent from a distance, up close, they can be a bit scary, thanks to their teeth. These little guys have a powerful set of chompers and an even more powerful bite. It’s not surprising, though, as sea otters’ teeth are an essential tool for survival, so they need to be strong enough to perform many tasks.

How Many Teeth Does a Sea Otter Have?

The number of teeth an otter has depends on its age. When our aquatic friends are pups, they start with about a dozen teeth. However, that number steadily increases as they get older until they reach a complete set of 32 teeth. Well, assuming they don’t lose any along the way.

Although 32 is a complete set, it is pretty common for adult otters, especially older ones to be missing teeth. Given how much they use their teeth to break shells, sea otters’ teeth suffer from wear and tear which only worsens over time.

For a lot of them, it gets to the point where their teeth start to fall out. For that reason, marine biologists use the number and quality of their teeth to determine an otter’s age.

What Kind Of Teeth Do Sea Otters Have?

Like humans, sea otter teeth are not uniform; instead, they have different types of teeth that serve different purposes. Because their diet consists primarily of shellfish, sea otters constantly use their molars, which can crush and grind materials such as shells with relative ease.

Unlike their river otter cousins, sea otters only have a few incisor teeth, which, in other species, are used for taking bites out of food. Since sea otters mostly bite on hard shells, incisors might not be as useful. Sea otters need to crush their food with their teeth, not cut it.

Of their 32 teeth, here is a breakdown of their teeth with the dental formula:

Type of TeethNumber of Teeth in upper/downer quarter of jaw
Incisors3/2
Canines1/1
Premolars3/3
Molars1/2
Total32

Do Sea Otters Have Sharp Teeth?

A few of the sea otter’s teeth are sharp, but most are not. Since otters have four types of teeth for various purposes, each has a different appearance. Most of their teeth are molars meant for crushing. These are not particularly sharp as their purpose is to pulverize hard materials. 

Meanwhile, they only have four canines, the teeth used for ripping and tearing, which tend to be the sharpest teeth. So while they have sharp teeth, they only make up a small portion of the total amount. 

How Do Otters Use Their Teeth

Sea otters get a lot of use out of their teeth! Teeth aren’t just for chewing food for otters; they are tools for survival.

Breaking Down Hard Materials

Sea otters eat a lot of crustaceans, shellfish, and clams. But to reach the tasty meat inside, they need to get past the hard shell. This is where their teeth come in. While sea otters sometimes use rocks and other hard objects to break shells, their most valuable tool is their teeth.

With their mouth full of strong teeth meant for crushing, sea otters are great at breaking shells open to get to the meat. They may also use their teeth for prying open shells. 

Self-Defense

The sea otter’s teeth aren’t just for getting access to snacks. Otters also use them to defend themselves against enemies. While they prefer to avoid a fight, our aquatic friends can use their teeth to bite enemies if they try to attack. Sea otters pack a powerful bite that can make some enemies think twice before messing with them!

Personal Grooming

The otter’s fur isn’t just there to look nice; it’s essential for survival. Their fur is incredibly dense and helps protect sea otters from freezing in the cold water. 

Sea otter fur is so dense that it can trap a lot of air bubbles, which adds an extra layer of protection. With such an important function, it’s no wonder that otters spend a lot of time caring for their coats.

That is why, after foraging and eating, you can usually find our semi-aquatic friends grooming themselves, both by rubbing their paws intensely all over their bodies, but also by biting their fur to sort out knots and messy parts while blowing air in between the fine hairs.

Mating

Aside from hunting, otters also use their teeth in the mating process. 

What do teeth have to do with mating, you might ask? Well, first of all, their teeth are helpful in self-defense. During the mating season, otters fight jealous rivals who might challenge them. 

However, their teeth can also play a part in the mating rituals themselves. If a pair of sea otters are mating, it is common for a male otter to use its teeth to bite the female’s nose or at the scruff of her neck.

In the wild, female sea otters often have scarred noses, and around the breeding season, it’s very common to see the poor female sea otters swim around with fresh, open woods on their noses.

How Strong Are Sea Otter Teeth?

With so many uses for their teeth, you can imagine they are pretty strong, and you would be right. Research shows that sea otters’ teeth are incredibly durable, able to bite down and break apart materials that would easily shatter human teeth. The reason for that is the enamel coating on their teeth.

Enamel is the outer layer of teeth, and what protects them from damage and harmful bacteria. The enamel of sea otters’ teeth is twice as strong as that of humans, preventing their teeth from chipping when they use them.

Do Sea Otters Sometimes Lose Their Teeth?

Like any animal, sea otters can lose their teeth. This is no wonder given how they use them! 

No matter how strong a sea otter’s teeth are, they don’t last forever and will wear out over time. Constantly biting into hard shells will take a toll on an otter’s teeth in the long run.

Scientists who examine sea otters report teeth getting stubby and blunted from years of use, especially among older sea otters. Others might be fractured, knocked out of place, or fallen out entirely.

In one case, scientists were able to pull teeth out of the remains of an otter and discovered that its teeth were no longer fully anchored to their bones, meaning they could easily remove them. 

Do Sea Otter Teeth Keep Growing?

Some people believe that sea otters’ teeth never stop growing, no matter how old they get. The reason is that some animals, specifical rodents like beavers and chipmunks, have teeth that constantly grow throughout their life. 

Sea otters are not rodents, however, and their teeth only grow in infancy.

Sea otters’ teeth are like ours. They will grow until a certain point and then remain that size for the rest of their lives.

Do Sea Otters Bite?

Sea otters are frequently exposed to humans, so to a certain degree, they have gotten used to humans. However, that doesn’t mean you are safe with them!

Like other wild animals, sea otters are unpredictable and can easily become aggressive. If they feel like they are being threatened or cornered, otters might lash out at humans and bite them.

While it is thankfully rare, it does happen from time to time. Otters usually bite in self-defense as they might feel threatened or provoked.

Sea otters also use their teeth all the time for fighting each other, even while it might sometimes just be play-fighting or wrestling for fun.

How Strong Is A Sea Otter Bite?

After seeing all of this, it’s clear that sea otters have a powerful bite. But just how strong is it? Some researchers say an otter’s bite force can reach 80 pounds, which is an incredibly powerful bite, much stronger than humans.

This is even more impressive because sea otters are relatively small but can easily break through bones and shells. 

So how come sea otters pack such a powerful bite? The reason can be attributed partly to how their skulls are built. Sea otter skulls are blunt, flat, compact, and with rounded cheeks. 

This shape is compact and tough, all while providing the right amount of space for the sea otter’s impressive jaw muscles. This is what provides them with enough power to pulverize shells, crabs, and sea urchins with little effort.

What Happens If A Sea Otter Bites You?

If a sea otter bites you, you must immediately report it to the authorities. Sea otters might be acting aggressively so the authorities need to warn other people of the danger. It will also allow them to investigate and figure out what might be causing the otters to behave that way. 

Aside from that, you should seek medical attention immediately. Sea otters have a powerful bite that can cause serious harm to their victim, so you should always air on the side of caution and have a doctor look into it. Aside from blood loss, you can suffer from fractured bones and infections. 

The most troubling part is that sea otters can transmit diseases and bacteria through bites. Thankfully, something like this is fairly uncommon, but it should still be something you should consider when getting treatment. If not, diseases like this can spread and have some very nasty effects.

Author: Quade Ong

Hello there, my name is Quade. I have been a writer for three years but an animal lover for over two decades. I grew up in one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, which has given me the blessing of seeing all sorts of beautiful animals. Now I strive to learn not just about the animals I am from, but those all over the world!

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