Friday, 8 June 2012

Sea Otter

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 (30 and 100 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 the animal kingdom. Although it can walk on land, the sea otter lives mostly in the ocean.
The sea otter inhabits offshore environments, where it dives to the sea floor to forage. It preys mostly on marine invertebrates such as sea urchins, various molluscs and crustaceans, and some species of fish. Its foraging and eating habits are noteworthy in several respects. First, its use of rocks to dislodge prey and to open shells makes it one of the few mammal species to use tools. In most of its range, it is a keystone species, controlling sea urchin populations which would otherwise inflict extensive damage to kelp forest ecosystems. Its diet includes prey species that are also valued by humans as food, leading to conflicts between sea otters and fisheries.
Sea otters, whose numbers were once estimated at 150,000–300,000, were hunted extensively for their fur between 1741 and 1911, and the world population fell to 1,000–2,000 individuals in a fraction of their historic range A subsequent international ban on hunting, conservation efforts, and reintroduction programs into previously populated areas have contributed to numbers rebounding, and the species now occupies about two-thirds of its former range. The recovery of the sea otter is considered an important success in marine conservation, although populations in the Aleutian Islands and California have recently declined or have plateaued at depressed levels. For these reasons, the sea otter remains classified as an endangered species.

Taxonomy


The first scientific description of the sea otter is contained in the field notes of Georg Steller from 1751, and the species was described by Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae of 1758. Originally named Lutra marina, it underwent numerous name changes before being accepted as Enhydra lutris in 1922. The generic name Enhydra, derives from the Ancient Greek en/εν "in" and hydra/ύδρα "water", meaning "in the water", and the Latin word lutris, meaning "otter". It was formerly sometimes referred to as the "sea beaver", although it is only distantly related to beavers. It is not to be confused with the marine otter, a rare otter species native to the southern west coast of South America. A number of other otter species, while predominantly living in fresh water, are commonly found in marine coastal habitats. The extinct sea mink of northeast North America is another mustelid that had adapted to a marine environment.

Evolution


The sea otter is the heaviest (the giant otter is longer, but significantly slimmer) member of the family Mustelidae, a diverse group that includes the 13 otter species and terrestrial animals such as weasels, badgers, and minks. It is unique among the mustelids in not making dens or burrows, in having no functional anal scent glands, and in being able to live its entire life without leaving the water. The only member of the genus Enhydra, the sea otter is so different from other mustelid species that as recently as 1982, some scientists believed it was more closely related to the earless seals. Genetic analysis indicates the sea otter and its closest extant relatives, which include the African speckle-throated otter, European otter, African clawless otter and oriental small-clawed otter, shared an ancestor approximately 5 million years ago.
Fossil evidence indicates the Enhydra lineage became isolated in the North Pacific approximately 2 million years ago, giving rise to the now-extinct Enhydra macrodonta and the modern sea otter, Enhydra lutris The sea otter evolved initially in northern Hokkaidō and Russia, and then spread east to the Aleutian Islands, mainland Alaska, and down the North American coast. In comparison to cetaceans, sirenians, and pinnipeds, which entered the water approximately 50 million years ago, 40 million years ago, and 20 million years ago, respectively, the sea otter is a relative newcomer to a marine existence. In some respects, though, the sea otter is more fully adapted to water than pinnipeds, which must haul out on land or ice to give birth.


Physical characteristics


Skull


A sea otter's thick fur makes its body appear much plumper on land than in the water.
The sea otter is one of the smallest marine mammal species, but is the heaviest mustelid. Male sea otters usually weigh 22 to 45 kg (49 to 99 lb) and are 1.2 to 1.5 m (4 to 5 ft) in length, though specimens to 54 kg (119 lb) have been recorded. Females are smaller, weighing 14 to 33 kg (30 to 73 lb) and measuring 1.0 to 1.4 m (3 ft 3 in to 4 ft 7 in) in length. Its baculum is, for the male otter's size, very large, massive and bent upwards, measuring 150 mm (6 in) in length and 15 mm wide (0.6 in) at the base.
Unlike most other marine mammals, the sea otter has no blubber and relies on its exceptionally thick fur to keep warm. With up to 150,000 strands of hair per square centimeter (nearly one million per sq in), its fur is the most dense of any animal. The fur consists of long, waterproof guard hairs and short underfur; the guard hairs keep the dense underfur layer dry. Cold water is thus kept completely away from the skin and heat loss is limited. The fur is thick year-round, as it is shed and replaced gradually rather than in a distinct molting season. As the ability of the guard hairs to repel water depends on utmost cleanliness, the sea otter has the ability to reach and groom the fur on any part of its body, taking advantage of its loose skin and an unusually supple skeleton. The coloration of the pelage is usually deep brown with silver-gray speckles, but it can range from yellowish or grayish brown to almost black. In adults, the head, throat, and chest are lighter in color than the rest of the body.
The sea otter displays numerous adaptations to its marine environment. The nostrils and small ears can close. The hind feet, which provide most of its propulsion in swimming, are long, broadly flattened, and fully webbed. The fifth digit on each hind foot is longest, facilitating swimming while on its back, but making walking difficult. The tail is fairly short, thick, slightly flattened, and muscular. The front paws are short with retractable claws, with tough pads on the palms that enable gripping slippery prey.
The sea otter propels itself underwater by moving the rear end of its body, including its tail and hind feet, up and down, and is capable of speeds of up to 9 km/h (5.6 mph). When underwater, its body is long and streamlined, with the short forelimbs pressed closely against the chest. When at the surface, it usually floats on its back and moves by sculling its feet and tail from side to side. At rest, all four limbs can be folded onto the torso to conserve heat, whereas on particularly hot days, the hind feet may be held underwater for cooling. The sea otter's body is highly buoyant because of its large lung capacity – about 2.5 times greater than that of similar-sized land mammals – and the air trapped in its fur. The sea otter walks with a clumsy, rolling gait on land, and can run in a bounding motion.
Long, highly sensitive whiskers and front paws help the sea otter find prey by touch when waters are dark or murky. Researchers have noted when they approach in plain view, sea otters react more rapidly when the wind is blowing towards the animals, indicating the sense of smell is more important than sight as a warning sense. Other observations indicate the sea otter's sense of sight is useful above and below the water, although not as good as that of seals. Its hearing is neither particularly acute nor poor.
An adult's 32 teeth, particularly the molars, are flattened and rounded, designed to crush rather than cut food. Seals and sea otters are the only carnivores with two pairs of lower incisor teeth rather than three; the adult dental formula is Upper: 3.1.3.1, lower: 2.1.3.2
The sea otter has a metabolic rate two or three times that of comparatively sized terrestrial mammals. It must eat an estimated 25 to 38% of its own body weight in food each day to burn the calories necessary to counteract the loss of heat due to the cold water environment. Its digestive efficiency is estimated at 80 to 85%, and food is digested and passed in as little as three hours. Most of its need for water is met through food, although, in contrast to most other marine mammals, it also drinks seawater. Its relatively large kidneys enable it to derive fresh water from sea water and excrete concentrated urine.


Behavior

The sea otter is diurnal. It has a period of foraging and eating in the morning, starting about an hour before sunrise, then rests or sleeps in mid-day. Foraging resumes for a few hours in the afternoon and subsides before sunset, and a third foraging period may occur around midnight.Females with pups appear to be more inclined to feed at night. Observations of the amount of time a sea otter must spend each day foraging range from 24 to 60%, apparently depending on the availability of food in the area.
Sea otters spend much of their time grooming, which consists of cleaning the fur, untangling knots, removing loose fur, rubbing the fur to squeeze out water and introduce air, and blowing air into the fur. To casual observers, it appears as if the animals are scratching, but they are not known to have lice or other parasites in the fur. When eating, sea otters roll in the water frequently, apparently to wash food scraps from their fur.


Foraging

The sea otter hunts in short dives, often to the sea floor. Although it can hold its breath for up to five minutes, its dives typically last about one minute and no more than four. It is the only marine animal capable of lifting and turning over rocks, which it often does with its front paws when searching for prey. The sea otter may also pluck snails and other organisms from kelp and dig deep into underwater mud for clams. It is the only marine mammal that catches fish with its forepaws rather than with its teeth.
Under each foreleg, the sea otter has a loose pouch of skin that extends across the chest. In this pouch (preferentially the left one), the animal stores collected food to bring to the surface. This pouch also holds a rock unique to each otter that is used to break open shellfish and clams. There, the sea otter eats while floating on its back, using its forepaws to tear food apart and bring it to its mouth. It can chew and swallow small mussels with their shells, whereas large mussel shells may be twisted apart. It uses its lower incisor teeth to access the meat in shellfish. To eat large sea urchins, which are mostly covered with spines, the sea otter bites through the underside where the spines are shortest, and licks the soft contents out of the urchin's shell.
The sea otter's use of rocks when hunting and feeding makes it one of the few mammal species to use tools. To open hard shells, it may pound its prey with both paws against a rock on its chest. To pry an abalone off its rock, it hammers the abalone shell using a large stone, with observed rates of 45 blows in 15 seconds. Releasing an abalone, which can cling to rock with a force equal to 4,000 times its own body weight, requires multiple dives.


Social structure

Although each adult and independent juvenile forages alone, sea otters tend to rest together in single-sex groups called rafts. A raft typically contains 10 to 100 animals, with male rafts being larger than female ones. The largest raft ever seen contained over 2000 sea otters. To keep from drifting out to sea when resting and eating, sea otters may wrap themselves in kelp.
A male sea otter is most likely to mate if he maintains a breeding territory in an area that is also favored by females. As autumn is the peak breeding season in most areas, males typically defend their territory only from spring to autumn. During this time, males patrol the boundaries of their territories to exclude other males, although actual fighting is rare. Adult females move freely between male territories, where they outnumber adult males by an average of five to one. Males which do not have territories tend to congregate in large, male-only groups, and swim through female areas when searching for a mate.
The species exhibits a variety of vocal behaviors. The cry of a pup is often compared to that of a seagull. Females coo when they are apparently content; males may grunt instead. Distressed or frightened adults may whistle, hiss, or in extreme circumstances, scream.
Although sea otters can be playful and sociable, they are not considered to be truly social animals. They spend much time alone, and each adult can meet its own needs in terms of hunting, grooming, and defense.

Reproduction and Life cycle


During mating, the male bites the nose of the female, often bloodying and scarring it.
  Sea otters are polygynous: males have multiple female partners. However, temporary pair-bonding occurs for a few days between a female in estrus and her mate. Mating takes place in the water and can be rough, the male biting the female on the muzzle – which often leaves scars on the nose – and sometimes holding her head under water.
Births occur year-round, with peaks between May and June in northern populations and between January and March in southern populations. Gestation appears to vary from four to twelve months, as the species is capable of delayed implantation followed by four months of pregnancy. In California, sea otters usually breed every year, about twice as often as those in Alaska.
Birth usually takes place in the water and typically produces a single pup weighing 1.4 to 2.3 kg (3 to 5 lb). Twins occur in 2% of births; however, usually only one pup survives. At birth, the eyes are open, ten teeth are visible, and the pup has a thick coat of baby fur. Mothers have been observed to lick and fluff a newborn for hours; after grooming, the pup's fur retains so much air, the pup floats like a cork and cannot dive. The fluffy baby fur is replaced by adult fur after about 13 weeks.

A mother floats with her pup on her chest. Georg Steller wrote, "They embrace their young with an affection that is scarcely credible."
    Nursing lasts six to eight months in Californian populations and four to 12 months in Alaska, with the mother beginning to offer bits of prey at one to two months. The milk from a sea otter's two abdominal nipples is rich in fat and more similar to the milk of other marine mammals than to that of other mustelids. A pup, with guidance from its mother, practices swimming and diving for several weeks before it is able to reach the sea floor. Initially, the objects it retrieves are of little food value, such as brightly colored starfish and pebbles. Juveniles are typically independent at six to eight months, but a mother may be forced to abandon a pup if she cannot find enough food for it; at the other extreme, a pup may nurse until it is almost adult size. Pup mortality is high, particularly during an individual's first winter – by one estimate, only 25% of pups survive their first year. Pups born to experienced mothers have the highest survival rates.
Females perform all tasks of feeding and raising offspring, and have occasionally been observed caring for orphaned pups. Much has been written about the level of devotion of sea otter mothers for their pups – a mother gives her infant almost constant attention, cradling it on her chest away from the cold water and attentively grooming its fur. When foraging, she leaves her pup floating on the water, sometimes wrapped in kelp to keep it from floating away; if the pup is not sleeping, it cries loudly until she returns. Mothers have been known to carry their pups for days after the pups' deaths.
Females become sexually mature at around three or four years of age and males at around five; however, males often do not successfully breed until a few years later. A captive male sired offspring at age 19. In the wild, sea otters live to a maximum age of 23 years, with average lifespans of 10–15 years for males and 15–20 years for females. Several captive individuals have lived past 20 years, and a female at the Seattle Aquarium died at the age of 28 years. Sea otters in the wild often develop worn teeth, which may account for their apparently shorter lifespans.



Ecology

Diet


Sea otters keep kelp forests healthy by eating animals that graze on kelp.
  Sea otters consume over 100 different prey species. In most of its range, the sea otter's diet consists almost exclusively of marine invertebrates, including sea urchins, a variety of bivalves such as clams and mussels, abalone, other mollusks, crustaceans, and snails. Its prey ranges in size from tiny limpets and crabs to giant octopuses. Where prey such as sea urchins, clams, and abalone are present in a range of sizes, sea otters tend to select larger items over smaller ones of similar type. In California, they have been noted to ignore Pismo clams smaller than 3 inches (7 cm) across.
In a few northern areas, fish are also eaten. In studies performed at Amchitka Island in the 1960s, where the sea otter population was at carrying capacity, 50% of food found in sea otter stomachs was fish. The fish species were usually bottom-dwelling and sedentary or sluggish forms, such as Hemilepidotus hemilepidotus and family Tetraodontidae. However, south of Alaska on the North American coast, fish are a negligible or extremely minor part of the sea otter's diet. Contrary to popular depictions, sea otters rarely eat starfish, and any kelp that is consumed apparently passes through the sea otter's system undigested.
The individuals within a particular area often differ in their foraging methods and prey types, and tend to follow the same patterns as their mothers. The diet of local populations also changes over time, as sea otters can significantly deplete populations of highly preferred prey such as large sea urchins, and prey availability is also affected by other factors such as fishing by humans. Sea otters can thoroughly remove abalone from an area except for specimens in deep rock crevices, however, they never completely wipe out a prey species from an area. A 2007 Californian study demonstrated, in areas where food was relatively scarce, a wider variety of prey was consumed. Surprisingly, though, the diets of individuals were more specialized in these areas than in areas where food was plentiful.


As a keystone species

Sea otters are a classic example of a keystone species; their presence affects the ecosystem more profoundly than their size and numbers would suggest. They keep the population of certain benthic (sea floor) herbivores, particularly sea urchins, in check. Sea urchins graze on the lower stems of kelp, causing the kelp to drift away and die. Loss of the habitat and nutrients provided by kelp forests leads to profound cascade effects on the marine ecosystem. North Pacific areas that do not have sea otters often turn into urchin barrens, with abundant sea urchins and no kelp forest.


Remote areas of coastline, such as this area in California, sheltered the few remaining colonies of sea otters that survived the fur trade.
 Reintroduction of sea otters to British Columbia has led to a dramatic improvement in the health of coastal ecosystems, and similar changes have been observed as sea otter populations recovered in the Aleutian and Commander Islands and the Big Sur coast of California However, some kelp forest ecosystems in California have also thrived without sea otters, with sea urchin populations apparently controlled by other factors. The role of sea otters in maintaining kelp forests has been observed to be more important in areas of open coast than in more protected bays and estuaries.
In addition to promoting growth of kelp forests, sea otters can also have a profound effect in rocky areas that tend to be dominated by mussel beds. They remove mussels from rocks, liberating space for competitive species and thereby increasing the diversity of species in the area.

Predators

Predation of sea otters does occur, although it is not common. Many predators find the otter, with their pungent scent glands, distasteful. Young predators may kill an otter and not eat it. Leading mammalian predators of this species include killer whales and sea lions; bald eagles also prey on pups by snatching them from the water surface. On land, young sea otters may face attack from bears and coyotes. In California, bites from sharks, particularly great white sharks, have been estimated to cause 10% of sea otter deaths and are one of the reasons the population has not expanded further north. The great white shark is believed to be their primary predator, and dead sea otters have been found with injuries from shark bites, although there is no evidence that sharks actually eat them. An exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum states that cat feces from urban runoff carries parasites to the ocean and kills sea otters.

Recovery and conservation


In the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, heavy sheens of oil covered large areas of Prince William Sound.
  During the 20th century, sea otter numbers rebounded in about two-thirds of their historic range, a recovery that is considered one of the greatest successes in marine conservation. However, the still lists the sea otter as an endangered species, and describes the significant threats to sea otters as oil pollution, predation by killer whales, poaching, and conflicts with fisheries – sea otters can drown if entangled in fishing gear. The hunting of sea otters is no longer legal except for limited harvests by indigenous peoples in the United States. Poaching was a serious concern in the Russian Far East immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991; however, it has declined significantly with stricter law enforcement and better economic conditions.
The most significant threat to sea otters is oil spills. They are particularly vulnerable, as they rely on their fur to keep warm. When their fur is soaked with oil, it loses its ability to retain air, and the animals can quickly die from hypothermia. The liver, kidneys, and lungs of sea otters also become damaged after they inhale oil or ingest it when grooming. The Exxon Valdez oil spill of 24 March 1989 killed thousands of sea otters in Prince William Sound, and as of 2006, the lingering oil in the area continues to affect the population. Describing the public sympathy for sea otters that developed from media coverage of the event, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson wrote:
As a playful, photogenic, innocent bystander, the sea otter epitomized the role of victim ... cute and frolicsome sea otters suddenly in distress, oiled, frightened, and dying, in a losing battle with the oil.
The small geographic ranges of the sea otter populations in California, Washington, and British Columbia mean a single major spill could be catastrophic for that state or province. Prevention of oil spills and preparation for the rescue of otters in the event of one are major areas of focus for conservation efforts. Increasing the size and range of sea otter populations would also reduce the risk of an oil spill wiping out a population. However, because of the species' reputation for depleting shellfish resources, advocates for commercial, recreational, and subsistence shellfish harvesting have often opposed allowing the sea otter's range to increase, and there have even been instances of fishermen and others illegally killing them.


Sea otters in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary - note the unusual shape of the hind feet, in which the outer toes are longest.
 In the Aleutian Islands, a massive and unexpected disappearance of sea otters has occurred in recent decades. In the 1980s, the area was home to an estimated 55,000 to 100,000 sea otters, but the population fell to around 6,000 animals by 2000. The most widely accepted, but still controversial, hypothesis is that killer whales have been eating the otters. The pattern of disappearances is consistent with a rise in predation, but there has been no direct evidence of orcas preying on sea otters to any significant extent.
Another area of concern is California, where recovery began to fluctuate or decline in the late 1990s.[Unusually high mortality rates amongst adult and subadult otters, particularly females, have been reported. Necropsies of dead sea otters indicate diseases, particularly Toxoplasma gondii and acanthocephalan parasite infections, are major causes of sea otter mortality in California. The Toxoplasma gondii parasite, which is often fatal to sea otters, is carried by wild and domestic cats and by opossums, and may be transmitted by domestic cat droppings flushed into the ocean via sewage systems. Although disease has clearly contributed to the deaths of many of California's sea otters, it is not known why the California population is apparently more affected by disease than populations in other areas.
Sea otter habitat is preserved through several protected areas in the United States, Russia and Canada. In marine protected areas, polluting activities such as dumping of waste and oil drilling are typically prohibited. An estimated 1,200 sea otters live within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and more than 500 live within the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.