sea otters

Exploring Spectacular Sea Urchins: A Look at the Diversity of These Marine Invertebrates (Photos)

Posted Mon, Dec 1, 2014 by Brianna Elliott to kelp, keystone species, long-spined sea urchin, purple sea urchin, sea otters, sea urchins

Hundreds of species of sea urchins exist

Stony sea urchin (Paracentrotus lividus), pictured Spain during an Oceana Ranger Atlantic Cantabric Expedition in 2008. (Photo: Oceana / Sergio Gosálvez)

Sea urchins—related to sea stars, sea cucumbers, and more—may appear as alien-like creatures with their numberous spines and vibrant colors. But, don’t let their seemingly strange appearances fool you: These marine invertebrates are excellent at self-defense and play important roles in balancing ecosystems. 


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Ocean Roundup: Sea Otter Teeth Stronger than Human’s, Sri Lanka May Face International Fishing Ban, and More

Posted Wed, Oct 15, 2014 by Brianna Elliott to african penguins, invasive species, methane, sea otters, Sri Lanka fishing ban

Sea otter teeth are two times stronger than human teeth

Sea otter teeth may be twice as strong as human teeth. (Photo: Alan Wolf / Flickr Creative Commons)

- New research shows that tiny microbes found along seamounts and the seafloor play a big role in sequestering methane. The scientists are still unsure as to how much methane these microbes take in, but say that they play a significant role in keeping methane from entering the water column. Grist


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Ocean Roundup: Seven Sharks Illegally Caught in Costa Rica National Park, Dolphins Cross-Breeding in UK Waters, and More

Posted Mon, Oct 13, 2014 by Brianna Elliott to Costa Rica illegal fishing, dolphin cross-breeding, longlines, north atlantic right whale, sea otters

Dolphins are cross-breeding off the UK

A bottlenose dolphin and calf. New research shows bottlenose dolphins off the UK are cross-breeding with other species. (Photo: Oceana / Soledad Esnaola)

- Scientists warn that otters off of Scotland are only living for about a third of the time than those off mainland Europe, largely due to more polluted waters and prey sources. The scientists warn that the short lifespans are troublesome because it keeps the otter population from being able to breed. The Scotsman


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Ocean Roundup: Seaweed Transporting Disease to Sea Otters, Lego to Break Ties with Shell, and More

Posted Thu, Oct 9, 2014 by Brianna Elliott to flooding, mangroves, ocean acidification, Royal Dutch Shell, sea otters, seaweed

Seaweed particles are helping spread disease among sea otters

Seaweed particles are helping spread disease among sea otters. (Photo: Vicki & Chuck Rogers / Flickr Creative Commons)

- Scientists have recently discovered that some mangroves are offering coral reef shelter and protection from climate change. In Hurricane Hole, a mangrove habitat in the U.S. Virgin Islands, scientists found 30 species of coral growing underwater. Science Daily


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In Honor of Sea Otter Awareness Week, Ten Fun Facts about Sea Otters

Posted Wed, Sep 24, 2014 by Brianna Elliott to keystone species, marine mammals, sea otter awareness week, sea otters

Sea Otter Awareness Week Celebrates sea otters

A sea otter. (Photo: Alan D. Wilson / Naturespicsonline.com)

There’s no denying that sea otters rank right alongside baby sea turtles and tiny clownfish as some of the cutest ocean inhabitants. Fortunately, these creatures receive an entire week each September to be celebrated through Sea Otter Awareness Week – a time for scientists, conservationists, and the general public to celebrate these adorable marine mammals and learn more about their key roles in marine environments.


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Ocean Roundup: Polar Bears Turning to Snow Geese for Food, Arctic Sea Ice Found to Absorb CO2, and More

Posted Tue, Sep 23, 2014 by Brianna Elliott to antarctic fish, arctic sea ice, polar bears, sea otters, UN climate

Polar bears diets are shifting from climate change

Polar bears are shifting diets to deal with climate change. (Photo: Alaska Region U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service / Flickr Creative Commons)

- Researchers say that sea otter populations, who have been slowly rebounding after recovering from near-extinction, did not increase from 2013. This is worrisome to scientists, who say that a lack of food, increased shark attacks, disease, and other factors are keeping them from recovery. SFGate


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Hungry Sea Otters Fight Climate Change

Posted Mon, Sep 10, 2012 by Peter Brannen to climate change, giant kelp, kelp forests, pacific ocean, sea otters, sea urchins

sea otter

Humans have an unlikely ally in the fight against global warming: sea otters.

According to a new study out of the University of California Santa Cruz, the playful, foraging mammals play a vital role in managing kelp forests, which in turn are capable of absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide. Sea otters prey on sea urchins, which, unchecked, can ravage kelp forests, but thriving sea otter populations help keep the urchins in check.

The study looked at 40 years of otter and kelp data from Vancouver Island to the Western Aleutian Islands in Alaska. The researchers found that in areas where otters flourished, so too did kelp. In fact, the kelp was able to absorb 12 times more carbon in areas that were not overrun by sea urchins. Giant kelp can grow as tall as 30 meters and kelp forests are provide important habitat for a number of fish species, including blue sharks.

"Right now, all the climate change models and proposed methods of sequestering carbon ignore animals," one of the study’s lead authors, professor Chris Wilmers said. "But animals the world over, working in different ways to influence the carbon cycle, might actually have a large impact.”

The study’s authors noted that the carbon sequestered by otter-aided kelp forests alone could be worth between $205 million and $408 million on the European Carbon Exchange, a market for trading carbon credits.

Populations of California sea otters, which once numbered around 15,000 along the Pacific coast, were decimated in the 18th and 19th centuries by hunters. In 1938, one lone colony of 50 otters discovered near Big Sur represented the entire population. Today that number has rebounded to almost 3,000 but the animal still faces threats, especially from parasites and infectious diseases which thrive in polluted waters. Otters, which depend on their fur coats for insulation, are also especially vulnerable to oil spills.

A decision is expected this December about whether to reopen a “no-otter zone” enforced by the Fish and Wildlife Service which extends from just North of Santa Barbara to the Mexican border in California. The zone was originally established in 1987 to help the fishing industry, and sea urchins have removed large swaths of kelp forest in the area.


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Thursday Trivia: Sea Otters

Posted Thu, Nov 10, 2011 by Meghan Bartels to california, cute ocean animals, kelp forests, marine mammals, sea otters

sea otter

A sea otter relaxes in Morro Bay, CA. [Image via Wikimedia Commons]

By popular demand, this week we’re discussing sea otters, the smallest marine mammal.

Native to the northern Pacific Ocean from Russia to southern California, this charismatic critter was seriously overhunted for its fur – almost to extinction. It has been protected by international law since 1911 and its population is starting to rebound, but it is still considered endangered. Now 90% of sea otters live off the coast of Alaska. Sea otters can sometimes be found in large groups of either males or females, known as rafts.

The sea otter can spend its entire life in the ocean, including sleeping anchored to kelp beds to keep from drifting away. Because it spends so much time in cold water and has no insulating fat, it relies on its fur, which is the densest of any mammal, to stay warm. It blows bubbles of air into this coat, with 100,000 hairs per square centimeter, to keep water from penetrating to its skin.

The pictures you’ve seen are probably of sea otters floating at the surface, but they are highly adapted to life in the water. Sea otters have a large tail to steer and large hind feet that act as flippers. Sea otters can swim as fast as 9 kilometers per hour and stay underwater for almost six minutes while diving.

Sea otters also eat in the water, hunting invertebrates like mussels, snails and crabs. Otters often become "specialists" in one type of prey, depending on their skills and what is available. The otter stores its prey in skin pouches under its forearms while it returns to the surface, where it uses its chest as a table and pounds frees its tasty morsel using a rock. This makes it one of only a couple of non-primate mammals known to use tools. Sea otters often keep using the same rock for multiple dives, and have been observed washing their prey. Males are known to steal food from females.

Sea otters have voracious appetites; in fact, their hunger can be crucial to maintaining healthy ecosystems. In some areas, otters act as ‘keystone species,’ which means that they keep populations of their prey, such as sea urchins, strictly under control. Without sea otters present, urchin populations could grow rapidly and eat entire kelp forests; with sea otters present, kelp can live long enough to form forests.

Threats to sea otters include oil spills, killer whale predation, which is increasing as other prey options are becoming scarcer; infectious diseases, particularly toxoplasma; and being caught as bycatch, particularly in fisheries that use gill nets.

Learn more about the sea otter and other fascinating animals at Oceana’s marine life encyclopedia.


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