Sea otter at UC Santa Cruz's Long Marine Lab turns 21 years old

Stranded as a pup in 1993, Taylor turned 21 this month, far exceeding the average life span for a southern sea otter

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Taylor enjoyed a "birthday cake" of frozen seafood treats on his 21st birthday. WATCH VIDEO (Photo by Leann Castle)

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Taylor has been part of the Mammal Physiology Project at Long Marine Lab since 2005. (Photo by Beau Richter)

Taylor, a sea otter at UC Santa Cruz's Long Marine Laboratory, turned 21 years old in November, making him the oldest southern sea otter on record as far as his caretakers can determine. During his time at the lab, Taylor has made substantial contributions to efforts to improve the prospects for his species in the wild.

"He is a true ambassador for his species," said Beau Richter, head trainer for the Marine Mammal Physiology Project directed by Terrie Williams, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz.

Taylor has been a productive member of the project since 2005 and continues to be an active participant in its science and education programs, despite being effectively blind for the past few years, Richter said. "He's actually in excellent health," he said. "Behaviorally, he has mellowed a bit, but he's still fully active."

Taylor celebrated his birthday on November 9 with an assortment of special food toys provided by the animal care team (see video). He was rescued as a pup in 1993 on the shore in Pebble Beach, where he stranded with a small tar ball under his left eye and conjunctivitis in both eyes. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Sea Otter Program treated and rehabilitated Taylor, but efforts to get him established in the wild were ultimately unsuccessful.

Taylor first came to Long Marine Lab in 1998, after federal wildlife officials recommended removing him from the wild. At the lab, Taylor learned to work with people and received the basic training he would need to live under human care. He then spent about six years at Colorado's Ocean Journey in Denver (now the Downtown Aquarium) as part of a public exhibit. He returned to Long Marine Lab in 2005.

One of the most important projects Taylor participated in at Long Marine Lab was research in collaboration with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife that resulted in dramatic improvements to the techniques for washing and rehabilitating oiled sea otters after an oil spill. He has also provided vast amounts of data for various heart rate studies, and continues to be an enthusiastic voluntary participant in frequent heart rate monitoring, Richter said.

"Taylor continues to be an excellent contributor to our knowledge of southern sea otter natural history, as well as helping undergraduates learn how to care for and work cooperatively with marine mammals," he said.

The southern sea otter (Enhydra lutris nereis), is federally listed as a threatened species. In the past, southern sea otters have lived as long as 18 years in human care, and in 2015 several are expected to reach or exceed that age. Several northern sea otters (Enhydra lutris kenyoni) have reached ages well into their 20s while under human care. Taylor, however, is the grand old man of southern sea otters.

Williams, who is currently in Antarctica studying Weddell seals, started the Marine Mammal Physiology Project at Long Marine Lab in 1994. Working with animals that are trained to voluntarily cooperate in the data collection process, the project investigates the energetic, physiological, and biomechanical parameters of numerous marine mammals, including dolphins, seals, and sea otters. The overarching goal is to understand what it costs marine animals to survive in a changing environment--critical information for efforts to protect the resources these animals need to make a living in the ocean.