• Behavioral observations and stable isotopes reveal high individual variation and little seasonal variation in sea otter diets in Southeast Alaska

      LaRoche, Nicole; King, Sydney L.; Rogers, Matthew C.; Eckert, Ginny L.; Pearson, Heidi C. (Marine Ecology Progress Series, 2021-10-28)
      Two complementary approaches were used to assess year-round variation in the diet of sea otters Enhydra lutris around Prince of Wales Island (POW) in southern Southeast Alaska, a region characterized by mixed-bottom habitat. We observed sea otters foraging to determine diet composition during the spring and summer. Then, we obtained sea otter vibrissae, which record temporal foraging patterns as they grow, from subsistence hunters to identify year-round changes in sea otter diets via stable isotope analysis of carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N). We compared the stable isotopes from sea otter vibrissae and sea otter prey items that were collected during spring, summer, and winter. Overall, year-round sea otter diet estimates from stable isotope signatures and visual observations from spring and summer were dominated by clams in terms of biomass, with butter clams Saxidomus gigantea the most common clam species seen during visual observations. Our results indicate that these sea otters, when considered together at a regional level around POW, do not exhibit shifts in the main prey source by season or location. However, sea otter diets identified by stable isotopes had a strong individual-level variation. Behavioral variation among individual sea otters may be a primary driving factor in diet composition. This study provides quantitative diet composition data for modeling predictions of invertebrate population estimates that may aid in the future management of shellfisheries and subsistence hunting and the development of co-management strategies for this protected species.
    • Sea otter effects on trophic structure of seagrass communities in southeast Alaska

      Raymond, Wendel W.; Schram, Julie B.; Eckert, Ginny L.; Galloway, Aaron W. E. (Inter-Research, 2021-09-16)
      Previous research in southeast Alaska on the effects of sea otters Enhydra lutris in seagrass Zostera marina communities identified many but not all of the trophic relationships that were predicted by a sea otter-mediated trophic cascade. To further resolve these trophic connections, we compared biomass, carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) stable isotope (SI), and fatty acid (FA) data from 16 taxa at 3 sites with high and 3 sites with low sea otter density (8.2 and 0.1 sea otters km−2, respectively). We found lower crab and clam biomass in the high sea otter region but did not detect a difference in biomass of other seagrass community taxa or the overall community isotopic niche space between sea otter regions. Only staghorn sculpin differed in δ13C between regions, and Fucus, sugar kelp, butter clams, dock shrimp, and shiner perch differed in δ15N. FA analysis indicated multivariate dissimilarity in 11 of the 15 conspecifics between sea otter regions. FA analysis found essential FAs, which consumers must obtain from their diet, including 20:5ω3 (EPA) and 22:6ω3 (DHA), were common in discriminating conspecifics between sea otter regions, suggesting differences in consumer diets. Further FA analysis indicated that many consumers rely on diverse diets, regardless of sea otter region, potentially buffering these consumers from sea otter-mediated changes to diet availability. While sea otters are major consumers in this system, further studies are needed to understand the mechanisms responsible for the differences in biomarkers between regions with and without sea otters