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Sea Cats, Lontra felina

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Description & Behavior

Sea cats, aka marine otters, Lontra felina (Molina, 1782), are rare and poorly-known marine mammals of the weasel family Mustelidae. They are the most exclusively marine species of the otters of South America, and rarely even venture into freshwater or estuarine habitats. The scientific name translates to "otter cat," and in Spanish, marine otters are often referred to as "gato marino" or "marine cat." In Chile the common name for the animal is Chungungo.

Marine otters are small mammals, rarely exceeding 1 m in length and 4.5 kg in weight. Their fur is dark brown on the dorsal surface (back) and light brown on the ventral surface (belly). Their guard hairs cover short insulating fur with a grayish tone. Their fur is coarser and tougher than in sea otters. Many think their fur is tougher than other otters because they live frequently in the surf where they can be pitched against the rocks. They have webbed front and hind-paws and short tails. Their lower jaws contain eight pairs of teeth, their upper jaws have eight or nine pairs. Their teeth are more developed for slicing than crushing. There is no sexual dimorphism in this species, and the females have four teats.

Sea cats are most often seen individually or in small groups of up to three. They are difficult to spot, swimming low in the water, exposing only their heads and backs. It is not known whether they are territorial. Males and mating pairs are occasionally seen fighting on prominent rocks above the water line used for resting, feeding, and grooming.

These are diurnal mammals, primarily active in the daytime.

World Range & Habitat

Sea cats, Lontra felina, are the only species of the genus Lontra that is found exclusively in marine habitats. They are found in littoral areas of southwestern South America, primarily in the intertidal areas of southern Peru, the entire coast of Chile, and the extreme southern reaches of Argentina. Occasional sightings still occur as far afield as the Falkland Islands.

Sea cats mainly inhabit rocky shorelines with abundant seaweed and kelp, and infrequently visit estuaries and freshwater rivers in search of prey. Surprisingly, they select habitats exposed to strong swells and winds, unlike other otters that prefer calmer waters. Caves and crevices in the rocky shorelines provide shelter; often a den will have no land access at high tide. Sea cats use sandy beaches only for travel between dens and water.

Feeding Behavior (Ecology)

Sea cats, Lontra felina, consume mostly invertebrates, crabs, shrimps, mollusks, with some vertebrate prey, including fish from the families Blenniidae, Cheilodactylidae, Gobiesocidae, and Pomacentridae, and occasionally birds and small mammals. Studies along the Valdivian coast in the south of Chile showed that the diet of marine otters consisted of 25 species; 52% (13/25) of the species identified were crustaceans, 40% (10/25) were fish, and 8% (2/25) were mollusks. L. felina showed opportunistic feeding behaviors, selecting prey seasonally according to availability. Some analyses have found that fruits may also be consumed on occasion. Sea cats have also been observed cooperatively feeding on large fish, but it is not known how common this practice is.

The most common predators of marine otters are killer whales, Orcinus orca, but they may also be preyed upon by sharks. Juveniles may be captured by birds of prey on land.

Life History

Sea cats, Lontra felina, breeding occurs in December/January. Litters of two to five pups each are born after a gestation period of 60 to 70 days, in January, February, or March. The pups remain with their mother for about 10 months and are sometimes observed on the mother's belly as she swims on her back, a practice similar to sea otters. Parents provide food for the pups and teach them to hunt.

The sea cat is most likely a monogamous species. Breeding takes place in a den or on shore between rocky outcroppings and vegetation. Outside of breeding season, sea cats are mostly solitary aggregating in groups of two to three individuals.

Conservation Status & Comments

Sea cats, Lontra felina, are listed as are listed as Endangered A3cd. A taxon is Endangered when the best available evidence indicates that it meets any of the following criteria (A to E), and it is therefore considered to be facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild.

Sea cats are rare and protected under Peruvian, Chilean, and Argentine law. In the past, they were extensively hunted both for their fur and due to perceived competition with fisheries, which extirpated sea cats from most of Argentina and the Falkland Islands. Poaching is still a problem, but one of unknown magnitude. It is unknown how many sea cats exist in the wild or what habitats should be preserved to encourage their recovery. They were listed under CITES Appendix I in 1976, and are listed as Endangered by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

They are listed as Endangered due to an inferred future population decline as a result of habitat loss and exploitation. Distribution of sea cats north of 39°S latitude is becoming highly fragmented because of exploitation, pollution and increased human occupation along the seashores. Poaching is still present in many regions, especially south of 39ºS latitude, where there is little or no enforcement of protective legislation. The original range has decreased considerably because of excessive hunting, and the species has been nearly exterminated from the regions of Cape Horn and southern Tierra del Fuego. Based on current rates of decline and trends, these threats are estimated to result in future population reductions of at least 50% over the next 3 generations (30 years) unless conservation measures are strengthened.

References & Further Research

Research Lontra felina » Barcode of Life ~ Taxonomy ~ BioOne ~ Biodiversity Heritage Library ~ CITES ~ Cornell Macaulay Library [audio / video] ~ Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) ~ ESA Online Journals ~ FishBase ~ Florida Museum of Natural History ~ GBIF ~ Google Scholar ~ ITIS ~ IUCN RedList (Threatened Status) ~ Marine Species Identification Portal ~ NCBI (PubMed, GenBank, etc.) ~ Ocean Biogeographic Information System ~ PLOS ~ SIRIS ~ Tree of Life Web Project ~ UNEP-WCMC Species + Database ~ WoRMS

Search for Sea Cats » ARKive ~ Flickr ~ Google ~ Creative Commons search ~ Wikipedia ~ YouTube

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