For California’s sea otters, survival is a long shot. It’s not uncommon to see an otter pup — orphaned, lost, hungry and injured — wash up on the beach around Monterey Bay.
“Saving Otter 501,” a “Nature” documentary premiering on PBS on Oct. 16, tracks the life of one such pup, dubbed Otter 501 by her handlers because she is their 501st attempt to save a stranded orphan otter.
The show follows Otter 501 from her discovery as a newborn crying on the beach to her rehabilitation in the hands of a team of marine biologists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Guided by the scientists and a surrogate otter mother, she struggles to learn how to dive, hunt and eat in an artificial environment, all with the hope that she will be able to fend for herself in the wild someday.
Through 501’s story, the program examines the role of humans in otters’ plight, whether we have a responsibility to try to save them, and why otter populations continue to suffer despite conservation efforts.
According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, California’s otters were driven to near extinction by hunters in the early 20th century, and their numbers never rebounded. Once estimated at 16,000 to 20,000, they are now though to number fewer than 3,000. While pathogens and parasites, coastal pollution, shark attacks and oil spills are major threats, these factors do not fully explain their ongoing struggle to survive.
The human body has evolved over millions of years, experiencing a jumble of transformations with numerous benefits: We evolved to walk on two feet, learned to hunt and gather, developed very large brains and achieved great strides in agriculture, industry, medicine and technology.
But, as Daniel Lieberman, who chairs the human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, explains in “The Story of the Human Body,” our Stone Age bodies don’t always play nice with the modern world we’ve created.
In the book, Lieberman guides readers through our evolution as a species and the rise of so-called “mismatch diseases” — illnesses that result from a mismatch between our genes and our environments.
For instance, the books says, the human body is not suited for the inactivity, chronic stress and caloric abundance that are common parts of life today. These “mismatches” contribute to such conditions Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer and autoimmune disease, and can help explain people are getting sicker despite living longer.
It’s not all bad news, though. Because evolution “explains why our bodies are the way they are,” Lieberman writes, it can also provide “clues on how to avoid getting sick. . . . If we wish to halt this vicious circle then we need to figure out how to respectfully and sensibly nudge, push, and sometimes oblige ourselves to eat foods that promote health and to be more physically active. That, too, is what we evolved to do.”