Sea Otters are a Keystone Species

By neub9
3 Min Read

Sea otters, scientifically known as Enhydra lutris, are essential to maintaining the health of California kelp forests through a process called a trophic cascade, which is an ecological phenomenon where changes in the abundance of one species at the top of a food chain can have profound effects on the entire ecosystem, including species further down the chain. As a keystone species, sea otters play a crucial role in the structure and function of the ecosystem, far exceeding their biomass or abundance.

The relationship between sea otters and kelp forests is primarily due to the otters’ feeding on sea urchins, which are herbivores that graze on kelp. By keeping sea urchin populations in check, otters prevent overgrazing of kelp beds and the subsequent damage to kelp forests. This, in turn, indirectly benefits various fish species, invertebrates, and other marine organisms that rely on kelp forests for shelter, breeding grounds, and food sources.

Kelp forests are essential components of temperate and boreal coastal ecosystems, providing food and habitat for numerous marine species. They also serve as a critical source of blue carbon storage, absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and acting as a natural buffer against coastal erosion and storm damage.

Furthermore, sea otters have been shown to protect salt marshes, slowing erosion by preying on Striped shore crabs, which eat away at the roots of pickleweed, an important stabilizer of the marshes’ sandy banks.

Despite heavy hunting for their fur, the enactment of the Marine Mammal Protection Act has helped sea otter populations rebound from near-extinction. Their conservation is crucial due to their status as a keystone species and their role in maintaining the health of coastal ecosystems.

Sea otters are native to marine environments in the North Pacific Ocean, with the majority of the world’s population residing in coastal Alaska. In the United States, they can be found along the mainland coastline of California and San Nicolas Island.

In addition to their ecological importance, sea otters are known for their unique behaviors, including using rocks as tools to break open clams, sleeping while anchored by seaweed, and holding hands while sleeping to keep family groups together.

Every year, Sea Otter Awareness Week is observed during the last week of September to highlight the essential role that sea otters play in the health of nearshore ecosystems and promote conservation efforts.

Through their unique interactions with the marine environment, sea otters have proven to be a crucial species in protecting the health and stability of California’s coastlines.

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