By Victoria Cavaliere
(Reuters) - A baby sea otter has made history as the first pup born in captivity to a mother impregnated in the wild, and is healthy and developing normally, researchers in California said on Friday.
The bundle of joy was born in November at the Long Marine Laboratory on the campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz, said Nicole Thometz, a researcher in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
The baby otter is being nursed by its mother, Clara, and the two are swimming together in a pool enclosed by screens, she said. Scientists intend to release the pup into the wild once it is weaned at around six months old, she said.
"We have to make sure it's big enough and fat enough to release," Thometz said.
To better the otter's chance of survival off the Central California shoreline, researchers are limiting their interaction with the pup, who was not named and whose sex is not known, she said.
"In order for us to successfully release, an otter cannot become habituated to humans. Not for food. Not for any positive interaction," she said.
The baby's mother, Clara, was in the early stages of pregnancy when she was rescued from a beach and brought to the marine laboratory, she said.
Clara had had several interactions with humans in the wild and researchers determined she had become too accustomed to people to survive on her own, Thometz said.
The research facility decided against publicly announcing the otter's birth last year to limit the pup's exposure to people, a university spokesman said. The birth was first reported by the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
The southern sea otter is the smallest marine mammal in North America. They are federally listed as a threatened species.
Once numbering as many as 20,000 in the Pacific Ocean off California, sea otters dwindled dramatically by the early 1900s after years of harvesting for their fur, according to the nonprofit group The Otter Project.
By the late 1930s, a small population had re-emerged in California and legal protection helped sea otters steadily increase in numbers, the group said. There are currently an estimated 2,900 southern sea otters in California.
Because they have no blubber, they must eat about 25 percent of their body weight in food to maintain their high metabolism.
(Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Sandra Maler)