“Sea otters might be on the frontlines of the fight against global warming, according to a new study showing the fur-coated swimmers keeping sea urchin populations in check, which in turn allows carbon dioxide-sucking kelp forests to prosper,” Discovery reports.
“Researchers from the University of California, Santa Cruz, looked at 40 years of data on otters and kelp blooms from Vancouver Island to the western edge of Alaska's Aleutian Islands. They said they found that sea otters have a positive indirect effect on kelp biomass by preying on sea urchins.”
The UCSC website quoted one of the researchers, professor Chris Wilmers, who noted, “It is significant because it shows that animals can have a big influence on the carbon cycle.”
MORE: Climate Change Pays a Visit to the Caribbean, and Coral Reefs Suffer
Comparing kelp density in areas with otters and without otters, the researchers found that, “sea otters have a positive indirect effect on kelp biomass by preying on sea urchins, a kelp grazer. When otters are around, sea urchins hide in crevices and eat kelp scraps. With no otters around, sea urchins graze voraciously on living kelp.”
“Wilmers and [fellow researcher James] Estes acknowledge that a spreading otter population won't solve the problem of higher CO2 in the atmosphere but argue that the restoration and protection of otters is an example how managing animal populations can affect ecosystems abilities to sequester carbon.”
Animal Portal notes that, “The sea otter has been hunted to near extinction for its soft, thick, lustrous fur. This marine mammal once inhabited the coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea from northern Asia and the Aleutian Islands south to lower California. By 1911 it was close to extinction when an international treaty gave it complete protection. The world’s sea otter population is now estimated at between 25,000 and 40,000 individuals. Recent transplants have re-established the species along parts of the Pacific coast where it had been completely wiped out, including the coast of British Columbia. The sea otter does not have deposits of fat under its skin to keep it warm. Instead it depends on air trapped in its thick fur for insulation against the cold, consequently pollution from oil spills is a major threat to these animals.”
As for the kelp’s role in all of this, Worldwatch Institute says, “The role of oceans, particularly coastal marine ecosystems, could become instrumental in mitigating climate change . . . The carbon sequestration potential of tidal salt marshes, mangroves, seagrass meadows, and kelp forests combined ‘compares favorably with and, in some respects, may exceed the potential of carbon sinks on land,’ according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.”
And Wilmers observed that, “Right now, all the climate change models and proposed methods of sequestering carbon ignore animals . . . But animals the world over, working in different ways to influence the carbon cycle, might actually have a large impact. If ecologists can get a better handle on what these impacts are, there might be opportunities for win-win conservation scenarios, whereby animal species are protected or enhanced, and carbon gets sequestered.”
Do you think funding studies like this is an important part in the fight against global warming?
Related Stories on TakePart:
• Ex-Sierra Club Chief Carl Pope: It's Time to Tax Carbon Pollution
• Climate Change Pays a Visit to the Caribbean, and Coral Reefs Will Suffer
• Study Links Global Warming to 30,000 Additional Murders by 2099
Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence | TakePart.com