Thursday, February 23, 2012

Creature Feature: Sea Otter.

Speaking of sea otters...

Yes, yes, let's get it off our chests now: Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) are adorable. They're like koalas, only more or less bound to the ocean. They look like stuffed animals capable of floating on the water.  It is impossible to stay mad at sea otters. Go ahead and try. Oshawott is officially the exception to the rule.

Adorable-ness aside, sea otters, like all mustelids, are carnivores. They feed on ocean-dwelling invertebrates like bivalve molluscs and sea urchins as well as small fish. Sea otters can be found in the northern parts of the Pacific ocean - i.e. California to Japan.  Japan loves them even more than I do, by the way.

Even their boogers are KAWAII.

Sea otters have a number of behaviors that only add to their cuteness. They swim on their backs and rotate while eating. They use rocks to break open hard-shelled mollusks (yes, using tools). Sea otters have got to be among the most maternal mammals out there; otter moms don't let their pups out of their sight, tether them in kelp while they go out hunting, and, if their pup happens to die, they still huggle the corpse for a few days. What? That's the most adorable use of a corpse ever.

No, I have not gone soft. The sea otter was recently brought to my attention for a very special reason in my Environmental Sustainability class. Specifically, the sea otter is a keystone species in many parts of its range. Allow me to explain exactly what that means:

Long story short, a keystone species is a species so unique that absolutely nothing else in its ecosystem does what it does. That means, if something happens to that keystone species, the whole food web will go out of whack. Guess what happened when the sea otter was nearly hunted to extinction for its plush fur?


Answer: Total ecological chaos. In the sea otter's natural habitat off the coast of California, it was the only thing eating sea urchins. Sea urchins, as I briefly touched upon yesterday, eat kelp - a sophisticated alga (not a plant) at the bottom of the ocean food chain. If the bottom of a food chain/web is effectively removed, everything that centered its life around it is bound to suffer.  Killing the sea otters meant major fish losses for everybody else.

Now, we have become smarter. The sea otter is now listed as an endangered species. It is illegal to hunt sea otters for their fur. It helps that they're so darn cute that they are hard for anyone with a soul to hunt. The problem is slowly being fixed, but not as quickly as we would like. After all, who would mind more sea otters?

Best case scenario!

Mind, the sea otter happens to be a very cute textbook example of a keystone species. There are several other important species out there that require attention and are not nearly as cute.

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