Select Page

If you have ever seen photos of otters holding hands while sleeping in the water, you may have wondered why. In this article, I look into the main reasons otters hold hands with each other.

Sea otters hold hands to stop drifting apart and losing each other while sleeping in the water. It also helps them keep their body temperature stable in cold water. Otters fear losing their mate to another male while sleeping. Holding hands helps protect them from predators as they appear larger.

If you want to know more about why sea otters hold hands, please read on.

Why Do Otters Hold Hands When Asleep?

There are four main reasons why otters hold hands while they sleep:

  • Otters are warm-blooded mammals and need to keep their temperature regulated. Sharing body heat with others helps them heat their bodies.
  • Otters hold hands to avoid drifting away from each other in the water. Otters fear losing their family members while they are sleeping. 
  • Otters also hold hands in fear of losing their female partner to another male. There is high competition between male otters when finding a mate.
  • Making a raft with another otter helps them look bigger in the water which protects them from predators or hunters. Otter fur is expensive, and the animal is often hunted. When they hold hands with another otter, they can remain further away from the land, making it harder for hunters to kill them.

What Do Otters Eat? Find out here.

Who Do Otters Choose To Hold Hands With?

Otters are known for their playful and social behavior, and they often hold hands while floating on water in groups called “rafts.” This behavior serves multiple purposes, including maintaining group cohesion, staying connected in currents, and preventing the raft from drifting apart. It’s a way for otters to stay together, especially when they’re resting or sleeping.

Otters don’t have specific preferences when it comes to holding hands within their groups. They generally hold hands with other otters nearby but will choose family members, friends, or members of their social group. The goal is to stay connected and maintain their bond while they navigate the water.

Sea otter kissing her pup

Do Otters Hold Hands With Their Pups?

The parents hold hands while sleeping with their pup, so they don’t drift away. Very young pups do not hold hands, and they can be seen sitting on the adult’s stomachs.

Holding hands while sleeping is difficult for babies as they are too small to hold hands. Pups will climb on top of the mother and ride on their stomach. When the female has to hunt, they keep their pups safe by wrapping them in seaweed. By doing this, the pups do not float away, and the parent can find them easily. 

Adults also use kelp to stop themselves from floating away when they sleep. The kelp grows from the seafloor up to the surface. By wrapping themselves in long strands of kelp, adults can stay in one place. They use the kelp as an anchor to sleep without any fear of floating out to the open ocean. 

Click here to find out where otters live.

Do All Otter Species Hold Hands?

Only Sea otters hold hands as they swim on their backs with most of their body out of the water. The behavior of holding hands, specifically in the sense of interlocking limbs while floating on water, is most commonly associated with Sea otters. This behavior is well-documented in this species and is often used as a way for otters to stay connected in groups, especially when they are resting or sleeping.

River Otters

River otters do not hold hands as they are almost entirely submerged when swimming with their back up. River otters sleep on land while sea otter sleeps in the water. Other otter species aren’t capable of floating on their backs in the water.

Giant Otters

Giant otters which inhabit South American river systems, are highly social and live in family groups. While they may engage in behaviors to stay close to each other, they do not exhibit the same hand-holding behavior as North American river otters.

Eurasian Otters

Eurasian otters also have a different social structure and behavior. They are generally more solitary and territorial, and their interactions with other otters are often limited to mating and raising their young. As a result, hand-holding behavior is not observed in this species.

Sea otters holding hands

How Do Otters Sleep?

Otters have no particular place to sleep but will always look for safety. They either sleep in dens or above the ground. 

When otters sleep on land, they often curl up to conserve body heat and protect their vulnerable underbelly. They might use a variety of shelters, such as burrows, dens, or hidden spots among vegetation. River otters and other otter species tend to find sheltered places near the water’s edge where they can rest undisturbed.

They can also sleep in the water, lying on their backs on the surface.  When sleeping in the sea, otters will usually wrap themselves in kelp strands, which keeps them from drifting too far.  

Otters are capable of sleeping in water, especially when they’re in a group or raft. To avoid drifting away from each other while sleeping in water, otters might link their bodies together in a loose group, often referred to as “rafting up.” This behavior helps them stay connected and secure while they rest, as well as providing protection from predators.

If you want to know how otters sound, click here.

Where Do Otters Usually Sleep?

Otters do not have a specific place where they live. Otters can be found in almost all parts of North America, with wet habitats such as rivers, lakes, oceans, coastlines, and marshes. 

Otters live in dens, but they do not build these themselves. They use the shelters from other animals, invading them to make them their own. These dens are located under the ground and have many inner chambers. 

The North American river otter lives in a holt or den. These are constructed by other animals and can be under a log or on the river bank. The dens have an entrance that may be underwater or above ground, which leads to a nest chamber lined with leaves, grass, moss, bark, and hair. 

North American river otters may also use hollow trees or logs, undercut banks, rock formations, backwater sloughs, and flood debris. A den as a resting site is chiefly opportunistic, although locations that provide protection and seclusion are preferred. Sea otters live and sleep in the water, rarely coming onto dry land.

Do you know what the predators of otters are? Click here.

What Makes the Sea Otter Able to Sleep in Water?

There are several adaptations that sea otters have that make them able to sleep in water.

  1. Buoyant Bodies: Sea otters have relatively large lungs and rib cages, which help provide buoyancy in the water. Their bodies are less dense than the water around them, allowing them to naturally float. This buoyancy helps them stay afloat even while they’re asleep.
  2. Air Trapping: Sea otters have dense fur with a high number of air-trapping hairs. This air trapped in their fur acts as insulation and increases their buoyancy. When otters groom and fluff their fur, they introduce air bubbles that create a layer of insulation, preventing direct contact between their skin and the cold water.
  3. Resting Positions: Sea otters often sleep while floating on their backs at the water’s surface. This position is natural for them and helps keep their heads above water. The buoyancy provided by their fur and body structure makes it easier for them to maintain this position without sinking.
  4. Anchoring with Kelp: Sea otters often use kelp or other aquatic vegetation to anchor themselves while sleeping. They might wrap themselves in kelp strands, holding onto the kelp with their paws, which keeps them from drifting away with the current. This behavior allows them to sleep in place and stay relatively safe from drifting too far.
  5. Semi-Conscious Sleep: Sea otters engage in what is known as “slow-wave sleep” while floating. During this type of sleep, their brain is somewhat awake, and they can easily wake up if they sense danger or need to breathe. This semi-conscious state enables them to quickly respond to any potential threats while still getting some rest.

If you want to know how otters communicate, I have written an article here.

References And Further Reading

Otters: Ecology, Behaviour, and Conservation by Hans Kruuk: This book delves into the ecology, behavior, and conservation of otters. While it might not specifically focus on otters holding hands, it does provide insights into their social behaviors and interactions.

Otters: Return to the River by Paul Chanin: This book covers the natural history of otters, including their behavior, habitat, and conservation. It touches on various aspects of otter behavior, including social behaviors like rafting.

The Enchanted World of Otters by Adrian C. Hughes: This book explores the lives of otters, delving into their ecology, habitats, and behavior. It’s filled with photographs and anecdotes that highlight the enchanting world of these creatures.

Otter Country: In Search of the Wild Otter by Miriam Darlington: This book combines natural history, personal narrative, and travelogue as the author embarks on a journey to encounter otters in various landscapes. It provides insights into otter behavior and its significance in different ecosystems.