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Brown bear–sea otter interactions along the Katmai coast: Terrestrial and nearshore communities linked by predation

November 11, 2022

Sea otters were extirpated throughout much of their range by the maritime fur trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, including the coast of Katmai National Park and Preserve in southcentral Alaska. Brown bears are an important component of the Katmai ecosystem where they are the focus of a thriving ecotourism bear-viewing industry as they forage in sedge meadows and dig clams in the extensive tidal flats that exist there. Sea otters began reoccupying Katmai in the 1970s where their use of intertidal clam resources overlapped that of brown bears. By 2008, the Katmai sea otter population had grown to an estimated 7,000 animals and was likely near carrying capacity; however, in 2006–2015, the age-at-death distribution (AADD) of sea otter carcasses collected at Katmai included a higher-than-expected proportion of prime-age animals compared to most other sea otter populations in Alaska. The unusual AADD warranted scientific investigation, particularly because the Katmai population is part of the Threatened southwest sea otter stock. Brown bears in Katmai are known to prey on marine mammals and sea otters, but depredation rates are unknown; thus, we investigated carnivore predation, especially by brown bears, as a potential explanation for abnormally high prime-age otter mortality. We installed camera traps at two island-based marine mammal haulout sites within Katmai to gather direct evidence that brown bears prey on seals and sea otters. Over a period of two summers, we gathered photo evidence of brown bears making 22 attempts to prey on sea otters of which nine (41%) were successful and 12 attempts to prey on harbor seals of which one (8%) was successful. We also developed a population model based on the AADD to determine if the living population is declining, as suggested by the high proportion of prime-age animals in the AADD. We found that the population trend predicted by the modeled AADDs was contradictory to aerial population surveys that indicated the population was not in steep decline but was consistent with otter predation. Future work should focus on the direct and indirect effects these top-level predators have on each other and the coastal community that connects them.

Publication Year 2022
Title Brown bear–sea otter interactions along the Katmai coast: Terrestrial and nearshore communities linked by predation
DOI 10.1093/jmammal/gyac095
Authors Daniel Monson, Rebecca L. Taylor, Grant Hilderbrand, Joy Erlenbach, Heather Coletti, James L. Bodkin
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Mammalogy
Index ID 70238157
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center Biology MFEB