Can we talk about how cool sea otters are?

By Dominique Kone, Masters Student in Marine Resource Management

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog introducing our new project, and my thesis, on the potential to reintroduce sea otters to the Oregon coast. In that blog, I expressed that in order to develop a successful reintroduction plan, scientists and managers need to have a sound understanding of sea otter ecology and the current state of Oregon’s coastal ecosystems. As a graduate student conducting a research-based thesis in a management program, I’m constantly fretting over the applicability of my research to inform decision-making processes. However, in the course of conducting my research, I sometimes forget just how COOL sea otters are. Therefore, in this blog, I wanted to take the opportunity to nerd out and provide you with my top five favorite facts about these otterly adorable creatures.

Photo Credit: Point Lobos Foundation

Without further ado, here are my top five favorite facts about sea otters:

  1. Sea otters eat a lot. Previous studies show that an individual sea otter eats up to 30% of its own body weight in food each day[1][2]. With such high caloric demands, sea otters spend a great deal of their time foraging the seafloor for a variety of prey species, and have been shown to decrease prey densities in their local habitat significantly. Sea otters are famously known for their taste for sea urchins. Yet, these voracious predators also consume clams, sea stars, crabs, and a variety of other small invertebrate species[3][4].

    Photo Credit: Katherine Johns via www.listal.com
  2. Individuals are specialists, but can change their diet. Sea otters typically show individual foraging specialization – which means an individual predominantly eats a select few species of prey. However, this doesn’t mean an otter can’t switch or consume other types of prey as needed. In fact, while individuals tend to be specialists, on a population or species level, sea otters are actually generalist predators[5][6]. Past studies that looked at the foraging habits of expanding sea otter populations show that as populations expand into unoccupied territory, they typically eat a limited number of prey. But as populations grow and become more established, the otters will start to diversify their diet, suggesting intra-specific competition[3][7].
  3. Sea otters exert a strong top-down force. Top-down forcing is one of the most important concepts we must acknowledge when discussing sea otter ecology. With top-down forcing, consumers at the top of the food chain depress the trophic level on which they feed, and this feeding indirectly increases the abundance of the next lower trophic level, resulting in a cascading effect[8]. The archetype example of this phenomenon is the relationship between sea otters, sea urchins, and kelp forests. This relationship goes as follows: sea otters consume sea urchin, and sea urchins graze on kelp. Therefore, sea otters reduce sea urchin densities by direct predation, thereby mediating grazing pressure on kelp. This indirect effect allows kelp to grow more abundantly, which is why we often see relatively productive kelp forests when sea otters are present[9]. This top-down forcing also has important implications for the whole ecosystem, as I’ll explain in my next fact.

    Pictured: sea urchin dominated seascape in habitat without sea otters. Photo Credit: BISHOPAPPS via Ohio State University.
  4. Sea otters help restore ecosystems, and associated ecosystem services. In kelp habitat where sea otters have been removed, we often see high densities of sea urchins and low biomasses of kelp. In this case, sea urchins have no natural predators to keep their populations in check and therefore completely decimate kelp forests. However, what we’ve learned is that when sea otters “reclaim” previously occupied habitats or expand into unoccupied territory, they can have remarkable restorative effects because their predation on sea urchins allows for the regrowth of kelp forest[10]. Additionally, with the restoration of key ecosystems like kelp forests, we can see a variety of other indirect benefits – such as increased biodiversity, refuge for fish nurseries and commercially-important species, and carbon sequestration[11][12][13]. The structure of nearshore ecosystems and communities change drastically with the addition or removal of sea otters, which is why they’re often referred to as keystone species.

    Photo Credit: University of California, Santa Barbara.
  5. Sea otters are most often associated with coastal kelp forests, but they can also exist in other types of habitats and ecosystems. In addition to kelp dominated ecosystems, sea otters are known to use estuaries and bays, seagrass beds, and swim over a range of bottom substrates[14][15]. As evidenced by previous studies, sea otters exert similar top-down forces in non-kelp ecosystems, as they do within kelp forests. One study found that sea otters also had restorative effects on seagrass beds within estuaries, where they consumed different types of prey (i.e., crabs instead of urchins), demonstrating that sea otters play a significant keystone role in seagrass habitats as well [12]. Findings such as these are vitally important to understanding (1) where sea otters are capable of living relative to habitat characteristics, and (2) how recovering or expanding sea otter populations may impact ecosystems and habitats in which they don’t currently exist, such as the Oregon coast.
Pictured: sea otter swimming through eel grass at Elkhorn Slough, California. Photo Credit: Kip Evans Photography.

Well, there you have it – my top five favorite facts about sea otters. This list is by no means exhaustive of all there is to know about sea otter ecology, and isn’t enough information to develop an informative reintroduction plan. However, a successful reintroduction plan will rely heavily on these underlying ecological characteristics of sea otters, in addition to the current state of Oregon’s nearshore ecosystems. As someone who constantly focuses on the relationship between scientific research and management and conservation, it’s nice every now and then to take a step back and just simply appreciate sea otters for being, well, sea otters.

References:

[1] Costa, D. P. 1978. The ecological energetics, water, and electrolyte balance of the California sea otter (Enhydra lutris). Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Santa Cruz.

[2] Reidman, M. L. and J. A. Estes. 1990. The sea otter (Enhydra lutris): behavior, ecology, and natural history. United States Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Biological Report. 90: 1-126.

[3] Laidre, K.L. and R. J. Jameson. 2006. Foraging patterns and prey selection in an increasing and expanding sea otter population. Journal of Mammology. 87(4): 799-807.

[4] Estes, J. A., Jameson, R.J., and B. R. Rhode. 1982. Activity and prey election in the sea otter: influence of population status on community structure. The American Naturalist. 120(2): 242-258.

[5] Tinker, M. T., Costa, D. P., Estes, J. A., and N. Wieringa. 2007. Individual dietary specialization and dive behavior in the California sea otter: using archival time-depth data to detect alternative foraging strategies. Deep-Sea Research Part II. (54):330-342.

[6] Newsome et al. 2009. Using stable isotopes to investigate individual diet specialization in California sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis). Ecology. 90(4): 961-974.

[7] Ostfeld, R. S. 1982. Foraging strategies and prey switching in the California sea otter. Oecologia. 53(2): 170-178.

[8] Paine, R. T. 1980. Food webs: linkage, interaction strength and community infrastructure. The Journal of Animal Ecology. 49(3): 666-685.

[9] Estes, J. A. and J.F. Palmisano. 1974. Sea otters: their role in structuring nearshore communities. Science. 185(4156): 1058-1060.

[10] Estes, J. A., and D. O. Duggins. 1995. Sea otters and kelp forests in Alaska: generality and variation in a community ecological paradigm. Ecological Monographs. 65(1): 75-100.

[11] Wilmers, C. C., Estes, J. A., Edwards, M., Laidre, K. L., and B. Konar. 2012. Do trophic cascades affect the storage and flux of atmospheric carbon? An analysis of sea otters and kelp forests. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 10(8): 409-415.

[12] Hughes et al. 2014. Recovery of a top predator mediate negative eutrophic effects on seagrass. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 110(38): 15313-15318.

[13] Lee, L.C., Watson, J. C., Trebilco, R., and A. K. Salomon. Indirect effects and prey behavior mediate interactions between an endangered prey and recovering predator. Ecosphere. 7(12).

[14] Laidre, K. L., Jameson, R. J., Gurarie, E., Jeffries, S. J., and H. Allen. 2009. Spatial habitat use patterns of sea otters in coastal Washington. Journal of Mammalogy. 90(4): 906-917.

[15] Lafferty, K. D., and M. T. Tinker. 2014. Sea otters are recolonizing southern California in fits and starts. Ecosphere. 5(5).

 

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