Around five months ago, two male southern sea otter pups were found along the coast of California, with no mother or other adults in sight. The babies were rescued by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, then transferred to a nursery at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, where staff have been helping the pups build key otter life skills: like diving, foraging, and grooming their fur. But the baby otters still haven’t been given names. For now, they’re known, rather impersonally, as pups 870 and 872. Now, as CBS Chicago reports, the Shedd Aquarium is asking for the public’s help in choosing monikers for the little critters.
Otter enthusiasts can vote for their favorite of the Shedd’s list of five names, all of which reference locations on the California coast, where southern sea otters make their home. There’s Cooper (for Cupertino), Watson (for the town of Watsonville, near Monterey), Bennett (for Point Bennett on San Miguel Island), Simon (for Simonton Cove on San Miguel Island) and Obi (for San Luis Obispo). Voting closes on September 28, and the winning names will be announced on September 30th, when the pups will begin their transition from the nursery to the Shedd’s Regenstein Sea Otter Habitat.
The naming contest coincides with “Sea Otter Awareness Week,” and the Shedd is hoping to spark the public’s interest in sea otter conservation. Prized for their thick, luxurious fur, sea otters around the world were once hunted to the brink of extinction. In 1911, Russia, Japan, Great Britain, and the United States signed a treaty that imposed a moratorium on sea otter harvesting. Southern sea otters, a sea otter subspecies, were listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1977—in part due to the risks posed by oil spills, which can destroy the insulating properties of otter fur and cause the animals to die of hypothermia.
Such conservation efforts have helped stop sea otters from disappearing, but the species continues to struggle. The IUCN lists sea otters as endangered, with oil spills continuing to be a major threat. In California, southern sea otters are also put at risk by sharks, which have been known to take exploratory—and fatal—bites out of sea otters in their search for seals and sea lions. Entanglement in fishing gear, infectious disease, habitat degradation and coastal pollutants are also curbing southern sea otters’ population growth. Today, only around 3,000 of the sub-species exist in the wild.
The fate of sea otters has important implications for the broader ecosystem. The animals are considered a “keystone species,” meaning that they have an outsize effect on their environment relative to their numbers. Otters are an important predator of sea urchins, which in turn stops the spiny creatures from growing out of control and decimating the kelp forests that many marine animals depend on for survival. Kelp forests also absorb carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—meaning that sea otters play a vital role in keeping the environment healthy.
Orphaned sea otters like pups 870 and 872 can help save faltering coastal ecosystems. Just this week, Eva Frederick of Science reported on an initiative by Monterey Bay Aquarium scientists, who paired orphaned babies with a captive “surrogate mother” and, once the pups had grown and recovered, released them to a degraded coastal estuary. Normally, sea otters cannot simply be relocated to habitats in need, because the animals have strong connections to their birthplace. But because the orphaned pups were rescued at such a young age, they were able to thrive in their new environment.
Pups 870 and 872, however, will serve a different conservation purpose. The Shedd hopes that they will serve as “ambassadors for their species,” helping raise awareness about southern sea otters’ continued need for protection. The webpage for the naming contest also includes a link to a petition in support of the Endangered Species Act, which was recently overhauled—and weakened—by the Trump administration.
“Sea otters are around today because enough people came together and demanded protections like the Endangered Species Act—our country’s bedrock conservation legislation,” says Peggy Sloan, chief animal officer at Shedd Aquarium. “[T]he best way we can ensure the continued survival of species like sea otters is by making your voices heard with elected officials, letting them know that you oppose the weakening of any kind on protections like the ESA.”