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Determining the pattern of cementum annuli and relationship to reproduction in male sea otters

September 1, 2007

Since the early 1990s, the southwestern Alaskan sea otter (Enhydra lutris) population has declined dramatically and the cause has yet to be determined. Population trajectories of large mammals are determined by three factors: survival rate, reproduction rate, and age of first reproduction (AFR). Of these three, AFR should respond first to environmental change. Life history theory predicts that AFR will be older with bottom-up causes (ie, food limitation) and younger when the cause of the decline is top-down (ie, predation), as there is usually abundant resources in this scenario. Traditionally, determining AFR required lethal sampling, which may not always be possible. Work on many mammalian species suggests that the width of annual cementum layers in teeth may decline when breeding begins. If so, examining teeth annuli may provide a nonlethal alternative for determining AFR. Ongoing research has shown this relationship in female sea otters, but male sea otters have not been tested. Sea otter testes and premolar teeth slides were collected by subsistence hunters working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Alaska Sea Otter and Steller Sea Lion Commission from Alaska (1994– 2005). We determined the pattern in cementum annuli thickness for male sea otters across age by measuring annuli at three sites on each of the two slide sections available. We found that cementum annuli layers decreased with age, but found no correlation between cementum annuli and sexual maturity in male sea otters. This lack of correlation may be due to sampling error or different energy expenditures during reproduction for each sex. Since females expend large amounts of energy through gestation and lactation, we hypothesize that the width of female cementum annuli decreases at a much sharper rate when they reach AFR.

The southwest Alaskan sea otter population has plummeted up to 90% since the early 1990s and the reason is unknown.1 Declines may be due to a bottom-up source caused by lack of food and habitat that occurs when populations are dense, in which case we would expect reproduction rates to decrease and age of first reproduction (AFR) to increase. However, circumstantial evidence suggests that the decline may be due to a top-down source, ie, predation.2 In this case, we would expect reproduction rates to increase and AFR to decrease due to lowered densities that coincide with top-down declines.3

An ongoing study of female sea otters has shown that past reproduction can be determined by analysis of cementum annuli in the teeth, and used to calculate AFR.4 Cementum annuli are annual deposits of minerals that occur on the root of a tooth that correspond to the growth of the animal (Figure 1). During summer and spring, growth is fast which accounts for the white area, but during winter, growth slows down and the cementum is compressed which accounts for a darkened line. In females, the relationship between cementum width declines and reproduction likely reflects the large expenditure of energy that is required during gestation and lactation. However, male and female mammals expend energy for reproduction in very distinct ways,3 and the same pattern of cementum decline may not be present in males. Since shifts in the life history strategy of males are poorly understood, we are interested in testing the relationship between cementum declines and reproduction in male sea otters using cementum analysis.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2007
Title Determining the pattern of cementum annuli and relationship to reproduction in male sea otters
Authors Josh Proper, Vanessa R. von Biela, Jennifer M. Burns
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ethnicity and Disease
Index ID 70174069
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center

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