Otters Lutra lutra L. which feed in the sea in Scotland frequently wash in fresh water. Experiments were carried out with otter pelts and with captive otters, to study the biological function of this behaviour. In vitro, the fur of otters lost much of its thermal insulation after five soakings in sea water and subsequent drying. Otters were fed in sea water or fresh water, with or without simultaneous access to alternative fresh water. When fed in sea water, otters used the alternative fresh water much more than when fed in fresh water, they were more reluctant to enter sea water if no alternative fresh water was present, and without this alternative fresh water they showed signs of hypothermia. After swimming in sea water the animals spent more time grooming and rolling. Without fresh water present the otters' fur lost its capacity for retaining air under water. These observations suggest an explanation for the restricted distribution of otters living along the coast, and for the lack of use of marine habitats by small mammals in general.