The otters (Mustelidae; Lutrinae) provide an exceptional perspective into the evolution of marine living by mammals. Most extant marine mammals (e.g. the cetaceans, pinnipeds, and sirenians) have been so highly modified by long periods of selection for life in the sea that they bear little resemblance to their terrestrial ancestors. Marine otters, in contrast, are more recent expatriates from freshwater habitats and some species still live in both environments. Contrasts among species within the otters, and among the otters, terrestrial mammals, and the more highly adapted pinnipeds and cetaceans provide powerful insights into mammalian adaptations to life in the sea (Estes, 1989). Among the marine mammals, sea otters (Enhydra lutris, Fig. 1) provide the clearest understanding of consumer-induced effects on ecosystem function. This is due in part to opportunities provided by history and in part to the relative ease with which shallow coastal systems where sea otters live can be observed and studied. Although more difficult to study than sea otters, other otter species reveal the connectivity among the marine, freshwater, and terrestrial systems. These three qualities of the otters – their comparative biology, their role as predators, and their role as agents of ecosystem connectivity – are what make them interesting to marine mammalogy.
The following account provides a broad overview of the comparative biology and ecology of the otters, with particular emphasis on those species or populations that live in the sea. Sea otters are features prominently, in part because they live exclusively in the sea whereas other otters have obligate associations with freshwater and terrestrial environments (Kenyon, 1969; Riedman and Estes, 1990).
|James A. Estes, James L. Bodkin, M. Ben-David
|USGS Publications Warehouse
|Alaska Science Center