Kelp Forest – Southern Sea Otter
Nature of America
Issue Date: October 1, 2009
City: Monterey, CA
The southern sea otter glides through the kelp forest in search of a meal. He combs the sea floor, using his paws and whiskers to spot prey in the murky water. Grasping a sea urchin (a small, spiny animal), he swims to the surface to eat.
A clever creature, the sea otter is one of the few animals to use tools. The sea otter uses stones to pry snails from rocks and hammer shellfish open.
The sea otter has the densest fur in the animal world, and it was its fur that almost caused its extinction. Beginning in the 1740s, the sea otter was hunted extensively for its pelt. By 1938, only a single colony of about 50 southern sea otters was left.
This rapid decline in the otter caused a chain reaction. The sea otter is one of the few animals which eats urchins. Without the otter to keep them in check, the sea urchin population exploded. The urchins grazed on kelp stems until the underwater forests were barren. With nowhere left to spawn, fishermen noticed the fish were suddenly gone.
In 1911, an international ban was placed on hunting the sea otter. Continuing conservation efforts have increased the number of southern sea otters to around 3,000. Although the southern sea otter is still an endangered species, it is on the rebound, along with the kelp forest.