“Sea star wasting disease came and did the experiment for us, and research on the Central Coast with Jenn Burt provided evidence of the important role that sunflower stars have,” says Salomon. They eat sea urchins and other invertebrates that graze on giant kelp. And other groups of sea otters in California and Alaska have taken a turn for the worse. Friendly sea otters were easy for fur traders to hunt. As keystone species, sea otters balance the ecosystems in which they live. “It was very interesting to learn how they give a helping hand to the apex predator in these areas, sea otters.”. “Planet Earth,” says marine ecologist Jenn Burt, “is actually Planet Ocean.”. Confirming the previously uncertain role of sunflower stars in kelp-bed ecology will help researchers as they monitor the resilience of kelp beds across the North Pacific Rim and manage their recovery. They live along 100 miles of the Washington coast. They can be as small as a human blood cell or reach lengths of over 45 metres. Their primary food sources include shellfish such as sea urchin (their favorite), sea … Consequently, the sea otters die from hypothermia. Unfortunately, their teddy-bear qualities were nearly their downfall. In the waters around Calvert Island, where surface temperatures dip as low as 8 C, subaquatic researchers need an airtight dry suit along with their usual scuba gear. Kelp is a type of marine algae. “They’re the teddy bears of the ocean,” says C.J. The sea water used was kept at 21°C, 7.86 pH, and 33‰. Part of a recovering North Pacific population and expanding across the Central Coast over the past three decades, sea otters are a keystone species that indirectly influence the abundance of kelp forest habitat. After four years of research, Burt and her colleagues came to a groundbreaking new understanding of the relationships between kelp, urchins and sea otters — thanks to unexpected discoveries about a previously overlooked bottom-dwelling predator. magazine, are published by the Society for Science, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) membership organization dedicated to public engagement in scientific research and education. Sea otters are voracious eaters — because they don’t have blubber, they eat a lot to maintain their body heat. Sea otters are a keystone species, meaning their role in their environment has a greater effect than other species. He and other scientists are working to find out what new threats otters face and why Washington’s otters have done better than others. Fortunately, sea otters have an appetite for sea urchins and they help to keep sea urchins in check, allowing the kelp to … Write. One square inch of it contains 1 million hairs—10 times as many hairs as on your entire head. The kelp ecosystem in these places is either nonexistent or weak. Kelp plants also shelter fish, sea urchins, and other creatures. Beneath the kelp live algae, the shrubs of the underwater forest. Also known as seaweed, there are red, green and brown varieties of marine algae, among others. In coastal areas where sea otters regularly consume sea urchins, kelp forests have a greater chance to take hold and endure, and act as an undersea forest habitat for other marine animals. When SSWD struck the region during the winter of 2015, it suddenly brought a new dimension to the research: a rare opportunity to also look at how predatory sea stars influence coastal rocky reef ecosystems. Gina_McCarthy1 TEACHER. Deprived of their normal food, killer whales turned to the sea otter. When boats are able to go out to gather data — in Burt’s case, counting sunflower stars, or performing an undersea experiment to track urchin feeding rates — divers have only 45 to 60 minutes to complete their task before their oxygen runs out. To count sea otters, scientists use planes. Enter your e-mail address above. Sea otters are a keystone species, which means that their role in the environment has a greater effect than other species. Seals are frequent visitors to kelp forests, and grey whales will feed on the crab larvae they find there — as well as use the kelp to hide their calves from killer whales. Sea urchins are related to starfish and look like small, purple hedgehogs. “Sunflower stars mop up the little sea urchins,” says Anne Salomon. Burt and her fellow researchers began collecting data in 2013, not knowing that two years later, the epizootic of sea star wasting disease (SSWD) would strike the waters around Calvert Island. Kelp plants also shelter fish, sea urchins, and other creatures. Some of the abiotic â ¦ Sea urchins exploded in number after their predator, the Aleutian sea otter, became functionally extinct in the 1990's. “Most of us only ever see the surface of the ocean,” she says. Sea otters are a keystone species, meaning their role in their environment has a greater effect than other species. In coastal areas where sea otters regularly consume sea urchins, kelp forests have a greater chance to take hold and endure, and act as an undersea forest habitat for other marine animals. Casson. is a free, award-winning online publication dedicated to providing age-appropriate science news to learners, parents and educators. He would go on to realize that sea otters are a keystone predator that increases the abundance of a diverse array of sea life. Sea otters are known as a keystone species, filling such an important niche in ocean communities that without them, entire ecosystems can collapse. Other researchers are studying why California’s sea otters seem to have become more vulnerable to disease and parasites. Otters eat urchins. The following story is an excerpt from Heart of the Coast: Biodiversity and Resilience on the Pacific Edge by Tyee Bridge — a new, beautifully photographed introduction to B.C. This can contaminate their habitat, leaving them with possible medical problems, and a decrease in food source. Thanks to Estes, and the work of subsequent researchers like David Duggins and Jane Watson, the beneficial effects of sea otters in propagating kelp habitats have been well established among ecologists, and increasingly well known to the general public. Kelp forests are influenced by a huge range of physical and biological factors. The otter is much smaller than the sea lions and seals, so the killer whales must eat more to get the same nourishment. New technology can get inside your head. Conservationists in 1969 and 1970 brought 59 otters to Washington from Alaska. Created by. Soon the kelp forest begins to grow back. Southern sea otters live in giant kelp forests along the California coast. For Hakai Institute scientists, undersea surveys bring other challenges. The abundance of food now known to be generated by kelp forests has influenced the rise of the kelp highway hypothesis: the idea that the first ice-age human populations to expand southward from Beringia did so by exploiting the rich marine resources of ice-free coastal regions, rather than migrating via an inland corridor between ice sheets. Rough weather on the outer coast can keep research vessels tied up at the dock for days. This has been observed in the areas of the California coast up through Alaska around to japan in the historic range of the sea otters which has been decreased due to fur trapping. This was my 'aha moment,' a profound realization that would set a path for the remainder of my life.". Still others are investigating what to do about killer whales feeding on sea otters in Alaska. That’s like an 80-pound kid eating 80 quarter-pound hamburgers daily. Sea urchins are voracious grazers of kelp. There’s still plenty of work to do if you’re interested in helping to save sea otters. Like land-based plants and trees, kelp and other algae form the base of the marine food web. Scientists map the kelp from planes to track whether particular forests are growing or shrinking. Because sea otters live very close to land, any pollution running off to the ocean will definitely affect them. You need an active subscription to post a comment. your subscription today. With no predators around, sea urchin populations can multiply, forming herds that sweep across the ocean floor devouring entire stands of kelp. The basking animal is likely to be a sea otter. In places where sea otters have disappeared, sea urchins will eat the kelp forest until it’s gone. “By the time you clip all the gear onto yourself so that you have everything and it doesn’t float away,” Burt says with a laugh, “it can look like a real gong show.”. Kelp produce their own food through photosynthesis, absorbing sunlight and organic carbon from the environment. Observing sea otters and kelp beds on Amchitka — both onshore and during scuba dives — led Estes to question the links between them. Around … Instead of taking down living kelp plants through overgrazing, they feed on naturally-fallen kelp detrius. © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2021. That’s the bigger narrative around this research that I think is really neat.”. Fish thrive in kelp forests, as do mussel beds, for example. “But when we have that opportunity to observe a sudden absence of a particular organism, and see what the impacts of that are, we have a lot more understanding. The publication, as well as. Burt and her colleagues also carry a panoply of marine science tools: a foldable, two-dimensional box for sampling called a quadrat; sealable bags for collecting everything from kelp to invertebrates; a writing slate with data sheets, pencil and built-in ruler; and meter tapes for measuring survey areas, known as transects. Burt has years of experience exploring the ocean floor off British Columbia’s Central Coast, but scuba diving still fills her with wonder. The need to stick with your “dive buddy” and communicate with hand signals or by scrawling on a slate can slow things down, as can murky water. Bowlby works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Are you ready? Unlike whales and sea lions, sea otters have no layer of blubber to keep themselves warm. When otters are present, they control Sea urchin populations. Sea urchins are related to starfish and look like small, purple hedgehogs. Without sea otters, ... How do orcas affect sea otters? Estes had seen what is now known as an urchin barren, the result of a trophic cascade. Many people are trying to figure out why. It’s ironic that the undersea world is so alien to most of us, since it makes up over 70 per cent of the globe. Weekly updates to help you use Science News for Students in the learning environment. This second prospec… Rather than wondering how the kelp forests affected otters… why not explore how the otters affected the kelp forests?”. Over an ecosystem area of approximately 5.1 × 10 10 m 2, the effect of sea otter predation on living kelp biomass alone represents a 4.4‐to 8.7‐teragram increase in C storage. The stipes and fronds of a kelp forest create a three-dimensional lattice that benefits everything from invertebrates like snails and anemones to marine mammals like seals and whales — providing food, hiding places and shelter. For 150 years, sea otters were hunted so heavily for their fur that, by 1910, they had disappeared from the waters off Washington and Oregon. In the wake of a devastating disease outbreak that ravaged starfish populations from Alaska to Mexico, researchers like Jenn Burt are just starting to understand the role that sunflower stars play in helping kelp beds to thrive. Without sea otters, these grazing animals can destroy kelp forests and consequently the wide diversity of animals that depend upon kelp habitat for survival. A sea otter has thick fur to keep it warm in frigid waters. Match. 10. They’ve made a comeback in Washington with help from scientists and conservationists. The disease outbreak created what is known to researchers as a natural experiment — a unique condition that appears without artificial or planned intervention. Since both humans are sea otters are mammals, I feel that studying the immunological ability of humans may be applied to the sea otters and it may reduce the number of otters that develop … How do sea otters affect the ecosystem? Learn about the connections among sea otters, sea urchins, kelp forests, and climate change. You wouldn’t think sea otters would affect the climate very much, but their existence keeps other parts of the ecosystem in check. Kelp forests are at risk from sea urchins, small spiky marine animals that love to eat kelp. As top predators, sea otters are critical to maintaining the balance of nearshore ecosystems, such as kelp forests, embayments and estuaries. Image courtesy Grant Callegari/Hakai Institute. They have only their thick fur for insulation. The carbon is initially trapped in a one-off mechanism by the kelp in its tissues. They leave behind desolate areas called urchin barrens. Washington’s sea otter population isn’t growing as fast as it once was. In general, there are two possibilities. But, according to ocean mammal researcher Ed Bowlby, Washington’s otters aren’t out of the woods yet. But most of all, those rich kelp forests – enriched by sea otter activity – play a key role in maintaining global environmental health. Sorry, your blog cannot share posts by e-mail. The publication, as well as Science News magazine, are published by the Society for Science, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) membership organization dedicated to public engagement in scientific research and education. Fish thrive in kelp forests, as do mussel beds, for example. Crude oil normally penetrates the fur of the otter destroying the air layer that is trapped next to its skin. They provide nourishment to the grazing herbivores that feed on them, such as sea urchins and abalone. But when there are not enough predators like sea otters to feed on sea urchins, the urchins graze over and effectively wipe out kelp forests. Juvenile salmon, herring and rockfish all use kelp beds for habitat, as do crabs, sea stars, abalone and other snails. He found that about 350 kilometres to the west of Amchitka, off a remote island called Shemya. Unlike the woods on land, a kelp forest moves with the push and pull of the ocean — and so do the researchers. Their timing was serendipitous. Spell. Free educator resources are available for this article. Fortunately, sea otters have an appetite for urchins. Sea otters convene in a kelp bed near Kodiak Island, Alaska. 1719 N Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036, A new chameleon species may be the world’s tiniest reptile, Giant worms may have hidden beneath the ancient seafloor to ambush prey, A robot made with a Venus flytrap can grab fragile objects, Space travel may harm health by damaging cells’ powerhouses, Harsh Ice Age winters may have helped turn wolves into dogs, Exploding neutron star proves to be energy standout of the cosmos. This sequesters carbon for a time, but as pieces of kelp wash ashore and decompose, the carbon is released back into the atmosphere. A newsletter for people who care about the climate. The reason for this is because sea otters eat sea urchins and sea urchins eat kelp. However, these smaller urchins are a favourite food of sunflower stars. There are areas with and without sea otters where researchers can compare the differences in kelp abundance, urchin populations and other aspects of undersea habitat. Killer whales have started eating them. Founded in 2003, Science News for Students is a free, award-winning online publication dedicated to providing age-appropriate science news to learners, parents and educators. PLAY. At 2012 prices (US$47 per ton of C), this stored C would be valued at US$205 million–$408 million on the European Carbon Exchange. Rather than using roots — as seagrasses do, which unlike algae are true plants — they cling to the rocky seafloor using growths called holdfasts. “If you go camping during pupping season, you can hear them squealing on the water,” Bowlby says. An otter is “no more than a mouthful” for a killer whale, Bowlby says. On the Central Coast reefs she studied, Burt links the loss of sunflower stars to a startling 300 per cent spike in the population of small and medium-size urchins, and to a resulting 30 per cent decline in kelp density. Pollution has also become a huge part of the reason sea otters are endangered. Sea otters help in preserving the kelp forests that grow underwater ... People affect sea otter populations through direct shootings and trapping sea otters in fishing nets. Beginning in 2013, Burt and her colleagues studied rocky reef areas around Calvert Island on the Central Coast of B.C., initially trying to better understand the effect that sea otters were having on undersea ecological communities. “When you remove an organism from the system, it’s then you realize that its impact was actually quite substantial.”. Gravity. 's coastal ecology, glaciology and archaeology done in partnership with the Hakai Institute. But Estes didn’t understand the real meaning of what he’d seen until a meeting with veteran ecologist Bob Paine. Among the otters’ favorites are crabs, clams, mussels, and shrimp—the same delicacies you might see served in fancy restaurants, Casson says. But hungry killer whales aren’t finding enough of their preferred prey: seals and sea lions. How Does Climate Change Change Affect Sea Otters ... Sea otters have a noticeably solid influence on the wealth of kelp through the impact they have on sea urchins, said James A. Estes, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz who was a co-author on Schmitz 's 2014 review and on the original sea otter study. The damage can sever kelp from its roots and cut the kelp off from ocean sediment nutrients. homeostasis: sea otter, urchin, and kelp. With the decline of the sea otter, the urchin population has skyrocketed, leading to diminishing kelp forests. They are sensitive to temperature, ripped up by storms and affected by currents and waves. These small urchins also readily devour kelp, and if their numbers swell, they begin to thin out kelp forests. The degree of influence that otters have depends on where the carbon ultimately ends up. Urchins eat kelp. As he tells in Serendipity, what he saw when he put on his scuba gear and entered the waters off Shemya shocked him: "When I looked down at the seafloor, I was stunned by the vast numbers of urchins and the absence of kelp… Every place I looked was the same—large and abundant sea urchins over a seafloor of crustose coralline algae with little or no kelp… In the absence of sea otter predation, sea urchins had increased in size and number, and the larger and more abundant urchins had eaten the kelp. They not only ensure the health of kelp forests but affect many other local species, as Estes’s investigations have since revealed. Although huge oil spills don't occur often, when they do, many sea otters are extremely harmed. The majority of their favorite meals can often be found in the deeper parts of the pacific ocean, where sea otter rarely go. When they did, says Burt, the insights came not only from her, but from “looking at the system with some clever modellers, from having coffees with Jim Estes and from talking with people who had seen similar things in other areas with green urchins.”. “Bob listened to my account of what I had seen while diving," Estes recalled in his 2016 memoir Serendipity, "and what I thought it might mean and then abruptly suggested a simple but radically different change in perspective. By … STUDY. Enduring the challenges of underwater experimentation and monitoring, however, can lead to groundbreaking insights. A lot of sea otter research focuses on kelp. He’s curator of mammals and birds at the Seattle Aquarium. With no predators around, sea urchin populations can multiply, forming herds that sweep across the ocean floor devouring entire stands of kelp and leaving “urchin barrens” in their place. The waters around the Hakai Institute on Calvert Island are at the leading edge of this expansion, and like the Aleutian Islands, are well suited to this sort of study. Secondly, oil spills result in the death of sea otters. Researchers have long known about the intricate relationship between sea otters, kelp forests and sea urchins. The sea otter (Enhydra lutris) is a marine mammal native to the coasts of the northern and eastern North Pacific Ocean.Adult sea otters typically weigh between 14 and 45 kg (31 and 99 lb), making them the heaviest members of the weasel family, but among the smallest marine mammals.Unlike most marine mammals, the sea otter's primary form of insulation is an exceptionally thick coat of fur, the densest in … One of them is cute and fuzzy — the other one, less so. In 1970, an ecologist named James A. Estes traveled to Amchitka Island in Alaska’s Aleutian archipelago to study sea otters. You feel like you’re on another planet, in a zero-gravity environment with all this life that you don’t normally get to see.”. Bowlby also tracks individual otters by following beeps sent out by radio transmitters. Algae species that had been missing make an appearance, along with fish that like to hide out in the canopy. The researchers have to implant the devices under the otters’ skin because the clever animals always figure out how to remove radio collars and anklets. By wiping out huge numbers of sea stars, including those in nearshore kelp-producing zones, SSWD had created a new set of research conditions. Researchers from British Columbia to California have seen large swaths of kelp forest disappear off the coastline in recent years, a troubling development that appears connected both to rising ocean temperatures and SSWD. Wherever sea otters have disappeared, kelp forests have suffered. Also, too much sediment or other particles floating in the water absorb heat from sunlight. 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