Seattle Aquarium awaits sea otter's birth
The Seattle Aquarium's otter Aniak couldn't be happier, munching on fresh, local seafood. But her keepers are pacing the floor. Aniak is due to...
Seattle Times staff reporter
The Seattle Aquarium's otter Aniak couldn't be happier, munching on fresh, local seafood. But her keepers are pacing the floor.
Aniak is due to give birth any minute now, and that has bird and mammal curator Traci Belting and C.J. Casson, the aquarium's director of life sciences, standing watch.
She's doing great and serenely going about her normal day, seems comfortable and right on track for an all-systems-go delivery, they say.
The Seattle Aquarium was the first in the world to successfully breed northern sea otters, so Aniak, one of the aquarium's three resident northern sea otters, is in good hands. She's also done this before with success, another good sign, having given birth to a pup now in Pittsburgh.
But it's always dicey: Sea otters give birth in water, and the chances of a live birth are about 50-50.
"They are an air-breathing animal; born into water, there are just a lot of hurdles to have a successful pup raised. You can easily lose a pup, and it's nobody's fault," Belting said. "We'll be monitoring it very closely."
Aniak was born at the aquarium to Lootas, a rescue from Alaska, so if her pup survives, three generations of the family will reside there. Whether the pup stays there will depend on its gender. If it's a male, he will need eventually to be relocated, as males would compete with Adaa, the male already at the aquarium, and the father of the pup.
Visitors would get to see the pup right away. There's no plan to close the exhibit or sequester the otters, who are used to activity and visitors.
The aquarium's goal was to limit breeding to make room for stranded sea otter pups, in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. To do that, Aniak's breeding was suspended, using birth control.
No one knew the longevity, however, of the birth-control method being used with sea otters. So, aquarium scientists were keeping track of Aniak's hormone levels for the past four years.
They were surprised to discover her pregnancy last June. Her hormone levels had led biologists to believe she was not capable of becoming pregnant.
A baby sea otter looks a bit like gray dandelion fluff, Casson said, because of its unusual natal pelage, a fur so fluffy that it enables pups to float while the mother hunts.
"They are one big puffball," Casson said.
A pup is about 3 ½ pounds at birth and about the size of a fuzzy football. At about 1 month, a pup begins to swim and attempts to dive — but it can't, Casson noted, because it is still so buoyant.
Once it sheds that fluffy fur, past the first month, "it's almost like your teenager getting a driver's license; that pup starts to dive and it will be everywhere, chasing mom."
If the pup makes it, the public will be asked to help pick a name for the aquarium's newest arrival.
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @lyndavmapes.
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