What can you learn from a sea otter’s whisker? Oceans of information, according to a new research project. By testing just a few whiskers for their chemical makeup, scientists can learn about sea otter diets and the productivity of the waters they live in.
It’s all part of a multi-year study called “Coastal Ecosystem Responses to Influences from Land and Sea.” By exhaustively examining sea otters and other nearshore species, scientists from more than a dozen organizations hope to learn more about the coastal environment from urban California to the pristine waters of Alaska—and what can be done to ensure its future wellbeing.
“We’re looking at the health of the entire system,” says Dr. Mike Murray, veterinarian at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the research partners. “And one species that’s critical to that is the sea otter. We’ve always said that sea otters are an indicator species, and now we’re using them in that role. They’re the canary in the coal mine.”
An Earbone with a Story to Tell
At times, the whole thing sounds more like NASA than nature study, more CSI than science at sea. Researchers are fanning out over thousands of miles to assess sea otter populations, analyze prey items, take blood samples, measure water temperature and generally gather a treasure trove of data. “We’re using cutting-edge technology,” says Dr. Mike, “and this includes everything from gene expression to satellite imagery.”
CSI: Sea Otter is just one example. Scientists are also looking at the earbones of two coastal fish species, black rockfish and kelp greenling, and reading them like the growth rings on a tree. “These little earbones, or otoliths, can be sectioned, measured, and even zapped by a laser to evaluate the productivity of waters that sea otters inhabit,” says Dr. Mike.
And that’s not all. Ocean temperatures and chlorophyll concentrations are being analyzed using satellite imagery. Air temperature and wind velocity are provided by oceanographic stations. Sea otter blood samples are tested, revealing information on organic pollutants, metals, parasites, bacterial infection, injury and temperature stress to which they’ve been subjected.
All told, there are six different geographic study areas, from Big Sur to Alaska. In each, about 60 sea otters are being measured and sampled. According to Dr. Mike, two populations are in decline—California and the Alaska Peninsula. Two are static—Prince William Sound, Alaska; and the Washington coast. And two are expanding—Southeast Alaska and Vancouver Island. Determining the reasons for the differences is one goal of the research.
"The nearshore ecosystem faces increasing challenges," says Jim Bodkin, research wildlife biologist with the Alaska Science Center. "These come from modifications to watersheds, such as urbanization and land use practices; and atmospheric and oceanic processes such as warming, acidification and rising sea level.
"We're using the eastern Pacific nearshore as a large-scale laboratory to understand these factors."
The research partners met for three days in late February at the Aquarium to discuss findings to date and plan future efforts. Data collection started in 2008, and the project tentatively continues until 2012, though the final year will mostly be spent analyzing data. “It’s an incredible amount of work, with a relatively small team,” says Dr. Mike, who recently spent weeks on a boat in Alaska, and plans to head out into the field in again May.
The final result will hopefully provide clues about what’s affecting sea otters, as well as important data on a host of other issues, from pollution to climate change. “This is the first time anyone has taken such an exhaustive view of the nearshore ecosystem,” says Dr. Mike. “That system is influenced from two directions: the oceans, where nutrition and weather comes from; and from land, where people are.
“It’s an area we believe is so important to the overall health of the oceans.”
Research partners include the U.S. Geological Survey; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the National Park Service; the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement; the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council; the North Pacific Research Board; Fisheries and Oceans Canada; University of Wyoming; Washington Deparment of Fish and Wildlife; California Department of Fish and Game; California Department of Fish and Game; Defenders of Wildlife; the Monterey Bay Aquarium; and the Seattle Aquarium.
All photos Ben Young Landis/USGS