Sea otters may be in the weasel family, but there's nothing sly or slinking about them. Sea otters are actually favorites at zoos and aquariums because of their active, playful nature, and natural cuteness. Sea otters can often be found floating on their backs, sometimes placing crabs or mussels on their stomach before using a rock to hit them and crack them open. Sometimes, as seen at left, they even "hold hands" as they sleep on their backs to keep from drifting.
While sea otters do well in captivity, they are struggling in the wild. There are about 100,000 sea otters left, living along the Pacific coast from California to southern Alaska. In Alaska, sea otter populations have declined more than 90% since the 1980s due to increased attacks by killer whales, a fact scientists attribute to changing oceanic ecosystems. Sea otters are a keystone species, keeping invasive animals like sea urchins in check; now that the otters are disappearing, sea urchins are destroying kelp forests, which in turn means that fish that like to hide in kelp forests have to find new homes.
Sea otters in California aren't doing so hot either. They've experienced a sudden drop in population, for which causes are uncertain. To combat this, on October 1 California Senator Barbara Boxer introduced a bill to fund research on California sea otters before they can decline further.