A cascade of otters

4 04 2022

Carnivores are essential components of trophic webs, and ecosystem functions crumble with their loss. Novel data show the connection between calcareous reefs and sea otters under climate change.

Trophic cascade on the Aleutian Islands (Alaska, USA) linking sea otters (Enhydra lutris) with sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus polyacanthus) and calcareous reefs (Clathromorphum nereostratum). With males weighting up to 50 kg, sea otters have been IUCN-catalogued as Endangered since 2000. The top photo shows a male in a typical, belly-up floating position. The bottom photo shows live (pinkish) and dead (whitish) tissue on the reef surface as a result of grazing of sea urchins at a depth of 10 m. Sea otters are mesopredators, typically foraging on small prey like sea urchins, but their historical decline due to overhunting unleashed the proliferation of the echinoderms. At the same time, acidification and sea-water warming have softened the skeleton of the reefs, allowing for deeper grazing by sea urchins that eliminate the growth layer of living tissue that give the reefs their pinkish hue. Large extents of dead reefs stop fixing the excess in carbonic acid, whose carbon atoms sea water sequesters from the atmosphere enriched in carbon by our burning of fossil fuels. Photos courtesy of Joe Tomoleoni taken in Moss Landing – California, USA (otter), and on the Near Islands – Aleutian Archipelago, Alaska (reef).

For most, the decisions made by people we have never met affect our daily lives. Other species experience the same phenomenon because they are linked to one another through a trophic cascade.

A trophic cascade occurs when a predator limits the abundance or behaviour of its prey, in turn affecting the survival of a third species in lower trophic levels that have nothing directly to do with the predator in question (1).

Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) represent a text-book example of a trophic cascade. These mustelids (see video footage here and here) hunt and control the populations of sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus polyacanthus), hence favouring kelp forests  — the fronds of which are eaten by the sea urchins.

Removing the predator from the equation should lead to more sea urchins and less kelp, and this chain of events is exactly what happened along the coasts of the North Pacific (2, 3). The historical distribution of sea otters once ranged from Japan to Baja California through the Aleutian Islands (see NASA’s photo from space, and documentary on the island of Unimak), a sub-Arctic, arc-shaped archipelago including > 300 islands between Alaska (USA) and the Kamchatka Peninsula (Russia), extending ~ 2000 kilometres, and having a land area of ~ 18,000 km2.

But the fur trade during the 18th and 19th centuries brought the species to the brink of extinction, down to < 2000 surviving individuals (4). Without otters, sea urchins boomed and deforested kelp ecosystems during the 20th Century (5). Now we also know that this trophic cascade has climate-related implications in other parts of the marine ecosystem.

Underwater bites

Doug Rasher and collaborators have studied the phenomenon on the Aleutian Islands (6). The seabed of this archipelago is a mix of sandy beds, kelp forests, and calcareous reefs made up of calcium and magnesium carbonates fixed by the red algae Clathromorphum nereostratum. These reefs have grown at a rate of 3 cm annually for centuries as the fine film of living tissue covering the reef takes the carbonates from the seawater (7).

Read the rest of this entry »

Unlikely the biodiversity crisis will improve any time soon

6 02 2020

hopelessAround a fortnight ago I wrote a hastily penned post about the precarious state of biodiversity — it turned out to be one of the most-read posts in ConservationBytes‘ history (nearly 22,000 views in less than two weeks).

Now, let’s examine whether this dreadful history is likely to get any better any time soon.

Even if extinction rates decline substantially over the next century, I argue that we are committed to an intensifying biodiversity extinction crisis. The aggregate footprint from the growing human population notwithstanding, we can expect decades, if not centuries, of continued extinctions from lag effects alone (extinction debts arising from previous environmental damage engendering extinctions in the future)1.

Global vegetation cover and production are also likely to decline even in the absence of continued habitat clearing — the potential benefit of higher CO2 concentrations for plant photosynthesis is more than offset by lower availability of water in the soil, heat stress, and the frequency of disturbances such as droughts2. Higher frequencies and intensities of disturbance events like catastrophic bushfire will also exacerbate extinction rates3.

However, perhaps the least-appreciated element of potential extinctions arising from climate change is that they are vastly underestimated when only considering a species’ thermal tolerance4. In fact, climate disruption-driven extinction rates could be up to ten times higher than currently predicted4 when extinction cascades are taken into account5. Read the rest of this entry »

Underwater deforestation

26 05 2009

© C. Connell

© S. Connell

I’ve been meaning to blog on this for a while, but am only now getting around to it.

Now, it’s not bulldozers razing our underwater forests – it’s our own filth. Yes, we do indeed have underwater forests, and they are possibly the most important set of species from a biodiversity perspective in temperate coastal waters around the world. I’m talking about kelp. I’ve posted previously about the importance of kelp and how climate change poses a threat to these habitat-forming species that support a wealth of invertebrates and fish. In fact, kelp forests are analogous to coral reefs in the tropics for their role in supporting other biodiversity.

The paper I’m highlighting for the ConservationBytes.com Potential list is by a colleague of mine at the University of Adelaide, Associate Professor Sean Connell, and his collaborators entitled “Recovering a lost baseline: missing kelp forests from a metropolitan coast“. This paper is interesting, novel and applied for several reasons.

First, it sets out some convincing evidence that the Adelaide coastline has experienced a fairly hefty loss of canopy-forming kelp (mainly species like Ecklonia radiata and Cystophora spp.) since urbanisation (up to 70 % !). Now, this might not seem too surprising – we humans have a horrible track record for damaging, exploiting or maltreating biodiversity – but it’s actually a little unexpected given that Adelaide is one of Australia’s smaller major cities, and certainly a tiny city from a global perspective. There hasn’t been any real kelp harvesting around Adelaide, or coastal overfishing that could lead to trophic cascades causing loss through herbivory. Connell and colleagues pretty much are able to isolate the main culprits: sedimentation and nutrient loading (eutrophication) from urban run-off.

Second, one might expect this to be strange because other places around the world don’t have the same kind of response. The paper points out that in the coastal waters of South Australia, the normal situation is characterised by low nutrient concentrations in the water (what we term ‘oligotrophic’) compared to other places like New South Wales. Thus, when you add even a little bit extra to a system not used to it, these losses of canopy-forming kelp ensue. So understanding the underlying context of an ecosystem will tell you how much it can be stressed before all hell breaks loose.

Finally, the paper makes some very strong arguments for why good marine data are required to make long-term plans for conservation – there simply isn’t enough investment in basic marine research to ensure that we can plan responsibly for the future (see also previous post on this topic).

A great paper that uses a combination of biogeography, time series and chemistry to inform about a major marine conservation problem.

CJA Bradshaw

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