Thursday February 1, 2024

The Current

Sea otters are making an impact as they return to the wetlands of Central California. Remarkable changes have occurred in the landscape as these adorable animals recolonize their former habitat in the Elkhorn Slough, a salt marsh-dominated coastal estuary in Monterey County.

The erosion of creek banks slowed on average by 69% after the sea otter population fully recovered at a time when rising levels, stronger tidal currents and nutrient pollution should be causing the opposite. Marsh and streamside vegetation is rebounding and putting down densely matted root systems that can increasingly stand firm against flooding and surging waves. These features, essential for making the estuary resilient, are on the mend in large part due to the sea otters’ insatiable appetite for herbivorous marsh crabs, according to a study appearing in Nature.

“These top predators can have a large effect on the habitats that they exist in. But we don’t know what those effects are unless we directly test them,” explained co-author Kathryn Beheshti, an assistant researcher at UC Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute.

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