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Otters have the ability to restore delicate ecosystems

In a stunning display of nature’s resilience, the Elkhorn Slough, a salt marsh-dominated estuary in central California, has undergone a significant ecosystem transformation over the past few decades, thanks to the return of sea otters to their former habitat.

Traditionally, coastal areas like Elkhorn Slough are subject to erosion from rising sea levels and stronger tidal currents.

However, with the reintroduction of sea otters, the estuary has seen a dramatic reduction in erosion rates. In areas densely populated by otters, erosion has decreased by up to 90%.

This improvement is attributed to the revival of marsh and streamside vegetation, which, with its densely matted root systems, has become more resilient against flooding and surging waves.

Sea otters’ role in transforming ecoystems

A recent study published in the journal Nature highlights the significant impact of sea otters. Their insatiable appetite for plant-eating marsh crabs plays a crucial role in this ecological turnaround.

“It would cost millions of dollars for humans to rebuild these creekbanks and restore these marshes,” said Brian Silliman, Rachel Carson Distinguished Professor of Marine Conservation Biology at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, and Director of Duke RESTORE and Duke Wetland and Coasts Center. “The sea otters are stabilizing them for free in exchange for an all-you-can-eat crab feast.”

Silliman, the senior author of the paper, adds, “(Remodeling a coastline) is usually something only large-scale physical forces, like hurricanes or extreme tidal flow changes, can do.”

The study, conducted by Silliman and lead author Brent Hughes, associate professor of biology at Sonoma State University, involved extensive field experiments and modeling over nearly a decade.

It confirmed that in areas where sea otters had returned, erosion slowed significantly, with some marshes even expanding. This suggests a pivotal role for sea otters in the stability of these ecosystems.

Otters: From extinction to ecosystem engineers

Historically, West Coast estuaries were thriving habitats for sea otters, providing abundant crabs and safe shelter for their pups.

However, extensive hunting and human activities drove them to near extinction, leading to a boom in the crab population, which further damaged the marshes.

Their return in the mid-1980s marked the beginning of a remarkable ecological recovery.

“Crabs eat salt marsh roots, dig into salt marsh soil, and over time can cause a salt marsh to erode and collapse. This had been happening at Elkhorn Slough for decades until sea otters recolonized the estuary in the mid-1980s,” said Hughes.

“After a few decades, in areas the sea otters had recolonized, salt marshes and creekbanks were becoming more stable again, despite rising sea levels, increased water flow from inland sources, and greater pollution,” 

Silliman also highlights the theoretical implications. “There are important theoretical implications as well. This work overturns the well-established bottom-up paradigm that coastal geomorphology is governed by interactions between physical forces and plant structure. Our results unequivocally show that predators also play a keystone role in controlling the course of these tidal creeks.”

Implications and future research

In summary, the reestablishment of sea otters in Elkhorn Slough has provided a unique and insightful case study into the profound impact top predators can have on coastal ecosystems.

Their natural predation on marsh crabs inadvertently led to a significant reduction in erosion and a revitalization of marsh vegetation, demonstrating a cost-effective and natural method of ecological restoration.

This wonderful story of resilience challenges longstanding ecological paradigms and presents a compelling argument for the reintroduction of top predators as a vital strategy in environmental conservation.

The full study was published in the journal Nature.


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