Bridging Oceans and Hearts: Otters inspire education for nonhuman life preservation

This text delves into the vital importance of otters in maintaining aquatic ecosystems, highlighting the alarming effects of plastic pollution and the imminent threat to aquatic life. Through this lens, mainly focused on Sustainable Development Goal 14: Life Below Water, this blog post offers ideas for educators who want to approach this topic engagingly in out-of-class settings, emphasising developing empathy for aquatic animals. 

By Nathália Helena Azevedo, University of Groningen


The Secret Life of Otters as Sentinels of Aquatic Ecosystems

In the gentle movement of waves and the meandering courses of rivers, a hidden guardian works silently to preserve the balance of aquatic ecosystems. Otters, graceful and intelligent creatures, play a crucial role in the tapestry of marine and freshwater life. The aquatic ecosystem is an intricate network of interactions, and otters are vital players in keeping this network stable. With their agile forelegs webbed and dense fur, they hunt small animals, carrying out a key role in regulating the populations of organisms such as crustaceans, molluscs, urchins, and fish. This delicate food dance reverberates throughout the food chain, maintaining harmony between predators and prey and preventing the imbalance of species and the collapse of ecosystems.
Otters also serve as ecosystem engineers: their actions shape the landscape and influence the availability of resources for other species, with a cascading effect on the entire food chain and the overall structure of the ecosystem. Their burrows in riverbanks influence the local vegetation, creating an ideal habitat for mixed life forms. Otter marine species can control the overgrowth of sea urchins, preventing the degradation of algae ecosystems. In this way, otters not only regulate populations but also sustain an intricate web of ecological interactions. 
We can also consider otters as secret sentinels. Their presence or absence can tell stories about the health of an ecosystem. When otters thrive, it signals a balanced and prosperous environment. However, when they face threats, such as plastic pollution, their struggles for survival echo urgent warnings about the condition of aquatic life.

Plastic Sea Threats and the Impact on Otters and Beyond

A quiet tragedy is unfolding amidst the vastness of the oceans, as millions of tons of plastic pollute the waters. Every year, an alarming 14 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans. This material comprises around 80% of all marine waste identified, from the surface layers to the sedimentary deposits on the ocean floor.
Otters, adorable, majestic and vulnerable, find themselves trapped in plastic nets in a desperate struggle for freedom, suffocating on pieces of plastic or mistakenly ingesting fragments that interrupt their lives. This plastic waste not only destroys the otters' natural habitats but also releases toxic chemicals, damaging the health of the entire aquatic food chain. The sad scenario of otters in trouble reminds us of the urgency of addressing the global crisis that threatens all aquatic life. The invasion of plastic waste in aquatic habitats disrupts animals feeding and behavioural routines, causing a worrying imbalance in their delicate lives. Faced with this tragic scenario, how can we work on this issue in science education in a sensitive and respectful way?

The development of empathy and the role of educators as agents of change

Science education is crucial in transforming environmental concerns into practical and effective action. It inspires a new generation of environmental advocates, ready to tackle challenges such as plastic pollution and the preservation of marine ecosystems, driven by solid knowledge and genuine passion.

When educating children and young people about marine animals and cultivating empathy, it is essential to understand the characteristics that arouse empathetic feelings. Empathy becomes a powerful tool for educators, allowing them to explore the deep interconnection between humans and the ocean. By designing learning experiences, educators can help foster positive behaviours that benefit humans and nonhuman species. Empathy, being a feeling, is also a skill that can be developed over time.
Studies indicate that an animal's ability to evoke empathy is related to agency, affectivity, coherence and continuity. Agency refers to an animal's ability to demonstrate human-like behaviours, while affectivity is linked to humans' ability to interpret animals' emotions. Coherence involves seeing an animal as an integral being, and continuity deals with the degree of familiarity and time shared. In this sense, expressive, charismatic and active animals, such as sea otters, often arouse empathy, while less charismatic animals, such as sharks, can face challenges. To maximise the development of empathy, educators can adopt research-based practices:

  • Shaping the Approach: How educators structure conversations about nonhuman animals plays a crucial role. A language emphasising perspectives, emotions and mental states can enhance understanding and empathy.
  • Modelling Behavior: How adults act influences empathy development in children. Educators, parents and teachers have a fundamental role in demonstrating appropriate treatment of nonhuman animals.
  • Increased Knowledge: Sharing information about nonhuman animals' unique needs and behaviours stimulates empathy. Highlighting similarities and differences between nonhuman animals and humans is an effective approach.
  • Practice: Providing opportunities to act on empathy, such as caring for or protecting nonhuman animals, strengthens emotional connection and trust with wildlife.
  • Direct Experiences: Participating in respectful experiences involving nonhuman animals, such as sanctuary visits or observation, fosters empathy. Natural interaction with nonhuman animals broadens the emotional connection.
  • Stimulating the imagination: Activating the imagination helps in understanding the animal perspective. Questions, games and role-plays can be resources for exploring how a nonhuman animal would think or feel.

Activities outside the classroom are especially relevant in developing empathy for nonhuman animals. They can include monitoring aquatic ecosystems on excursions, creating innovative solutions to collect and recycle plastic, designing awareness campaigns using digital media and analysing data on plastic pollution and its effects on marine life. These approaches have the potential to unite scientific knowledge with engaging and meaningful practices, enriching students' understanding and empowering them to become agents of change, promoting greater environmental awareness and effective engagement in the preservation of aquatic life. In doing so, we work together towards a more empathetic, just and sustainable future, benefiting different forms of life that inhabit our blue planet.


To learn more:

Gregory, M.R. (2009). Environmental implications of plastic debris in marine settings—entanglement, ingestion, smothering, hangers-on, hitch-hiking and alien invasions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364(1526), 2013-2025.
Sea Otter Savvy. (2023). Sea Otters Are Ecosystem Superheroes. Retrieved August 16, 
Thiel, M., Luna-Jorquera, G., Álvarez-Varas, R., Gallardo, C., Hinojosa, I.A., Luna, N., ... & Zavalaga, C. (2018). Impacts of marine plastic pollution from continental coasts to subtropical gyres—fish, seabirds, and other vertebrates in the SE Pacific. Frontiers in Marine Science, 5:238.
Wharton, J., Khalil, K., Fyfe, C., Young, A. (2019). Effective Practices for Fostering Empathy Towards Marine Life. In: Fauville, G., Payne, D., Marrero, M., Lantz-Andersson, A., Crouch, F. (eds) Exemplary Practices in Marine Science Education. Springer, Cham. 
Young, A., Khalil, K. A., & Wharton, J. (2018). Empathy for animals: A review of the existing literature. Curator: The Museum Journal, 61(2), 327-343. 

Bridging Oceans and Hearts: Otters inspire education for nonhuman life preservation