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Sea otter predator avoidance behavior

May 1, 2021

Predators directly affect their prey as a source of mortality, and prey respond by employing antipredator strategies. Sea otters are a keystone predator within the nearshore community, but higher trophic level avian, terrestrial, and pelagic predators (e.g., bald eagles, brown bears, wolves, white sharks, and killer whales) prey on them. Three antipredator strategies used by sea otters are vigilance (group or sentinel detection of danger), avoidance (seeking a location that is inaccessible to predators), and crypsis (the ability to avoid observation or detection). Vigilant behavior allowed sea otters to escape total extinction during the Maritime Fur Trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Female otters with pups practice vigilance when they reduce their foraging time and move along meandering paths. Sea otters usually rest at sea, and when they rest on shore, they usually haul out on offshore rocks, reefs, and small islands—possibly a behavioral response to terrestrial predators (brown bears and wolves can kill non-vigilant sea otters on shore). In areas where many sea otters haul out together, group vigilance may be important in detecting an approaching threat. Along the coast of central California, white sharks are a significant source of sea otter mortality, and the only antipredator strategy is avoidance or crypsis by resting in kelp beds. Despite the threat, sea otters still forage in open water, so the perception of risk may be low. In the western Aleutian Islands, killer whale predation is believed to be the cause of a > 90% decline in sea otters. As a result, sea otters perceive killer whales as a threat and limit their movements to shallow, complex habitats where the risk of attack is low. This behavioral response is so strong in the western Aleutian Islands that it may it limit sea otter dispersal among islands, with implications for the connectivity and genetic health of the small, isolated populations that remain.

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