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Revealing the extent of sea otter impacts on bivalve prey through multi-trophic monitoring and mechanistic models

April 20, 2023
  1. Sea otters are apex predators that can exert considerable influence over the nearshore communities they occupy. Since facing near extinction in the early 1900s, sea otters are making a remarkable recovery in Southeast Alaska, particularly in Glacier Bay, the largest protected tidewater glacier fjord in the world. The expansion of sea otters across Glacier Bay offers both a challenge to monitoring and stewardship and an unprecedented opportunity to study the top-down effect of a novel apex predator across a diverse and productive ecosystem.
  2. Our goal was to integrate monitoring data across trophic levels, space, and time to quantify and map the predator–prey interaction between sea otters and butter clams Saxidomus gigantea, one of the dominant large bivalves in Glacier Bay and a favoured prey of sea otters.
  3. We developed a spatially-referenced mechanistic differential equation model of butter clam dynamics that combined both environmental drivers of local population growth and estimates of otter abundance from aerial survey data. We embedded this model in a Bayesian statistical framework and fit it to clam survey data from 43 intertidal and subtidal sites across Glacier Bay.
  4. Prior to substantial sea otter expansion, we found that butter clam density was structured by an environmental gradient driven by distance from glacier (represented by latitude) and a quadratic effect of current speed. Estimates of sea otter attack rate revealed spatial heterogeneity in sea otter impacts and a negative relationship with local shoreline complexity.
  5. Sea otter exploitation of productive butter clam habitat substantially reduced the abundance and altered the distribution of butter clams across Glacier Bay, with potential cascading consequences for nearshore community structure and function. Spatial variation in estimated sea otter predation processes further suggests that community context and local environmental conditions mediate the top-down influence of sea otters on a given prey. Overall, our framework provides high-resolution insights about the interaction among components of this food web and could be applied to a variety of other systems involving invasive species, epidemiology or migration.
Publication Year 2023
Title Revealing the extent of sea otter impacts on bivalve prey through multi-trophic monitoring and mechanistic models
DOI 10.1111/1365-2656.13929
Authors Clinton B. Leach, Benjamin P. Weitzman, James L. Bodkin, Daniel Esler, George G. Esslinger, Kimberly A. Kloecker, Daniel Monson, Jamie N. Womble, Mevin B. Hooten
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Animal Ecology
Index ID 70242949
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center Ecosystems