“When you descend below the surface, it’s like going into space. Traditionally, California’s iconic sea otter has stepped in to keep urchin populations in check. Sea otters aren’t just cute – these marine mammals play a vital role protecting the kelp forests which maintain our climate and prevent storm damage. The disease outbreak created what is known to researchers as a natural experiment — a unique condition that appears without artificial or planned intervention. That’s the bigger narrative around this research that I think is really neat.”. The kelp can flourish, providing habitat for many ocean organisms. However, sea urchins also love to eat the holdfasts of kelp. 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. Without sea otters, sea urchins and other herbivorous invertebrates are left unchecked to graze through swathes of giant kelp forests, creating barren stretches of coastal habitat behind them that once served as nurseries for fish, seals and hordes of other sea life. And the Kelp provides an anchor for the Sea Otter when they sleep. Our organization is funded entirely by grants and contributions from people like you who want to see a safer, more peaceful world for sea otters and all wildlife. This is a mutualism relationship because both species benefit from the interaction. By controlling the size and number of sea urchins (sea urchins are one of their favorite foods, and they eat the larger ones first), sea otters created the opportunity for kelp to grow and flourish, which in turn created habitat for numerous other kelp forest dwellers. Copyright © 2021 Sea Otter Savvy. Sea otters dive to rocky reefs, where they collect invertebrates and also a large rock. Sea otters are considered a keystone species because of the crucial ecological role they play in maintaining the health and stability of the nearshore marine ecosystem. To oblivion and back. Photo by Sebastian Kennerknecht/Minden Pictures . Even the smallest donation may fund a “Respect the Nap” sticker for a child or a pair of binoculars for one of our community science researchers. But a new twist on this relationship, usually understood as a three-way interaction between urchins, kelp and sea otters, has recently come out of the work done on the Central Coast by Jenn Burt and her Hakai Institute colleagues. To understand the relationship between the two, Estes needed to find an area that was devoid of otters and see what the kelp forests looked like. Rather than wondering how the kelp forests affected otters… why not explore how the otters affected the kelp forests?”. * Sea Otter Great White Shark Hagfish Crab. Their predators include sea otters, starfish, wolf eels, triggerfish, and humans. 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. 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. Sea otters are such voracious eaters, West Coast crab and sea urchin fishermen have gone on record with concerns and cautions. Estes had seen what is now known as an urchin barren, the result of a trophic cascade. All Rights Reserved. Estes’s observations revealed an “extraordinarily high” sea otter population around Amchitka, inhabiting a lush undersea world of kelp forests. They have an interesting method of eating their prey. The sea otters help the kelp by eating the sea urchins because if there is too big of a population of sea urchins the kelp is endangered. One of the results of Dr. Estes’ research was to designate sea otters as a “keystone species”. Sea urchins are like vacuum cleaners of the ocean floor. Sea otters, in turn, are equally voracious predators of sea urchins. What are the Producers? 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.”. These furry creatures are closely intertwined with the life cycle and recovery of kelp forests from urchin predation. Despite the Cold War considerations that placed him there, his research ended up transforming our modern understanding of coastal ecology. Aleutian sea otters have been in flux before. 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