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Sea otters past and present perspectives

January 1, 2000

Sea otters have been an important resource for people living along the North Pacific coast for thousands of years. At least two aspects of the sea otters' natural history have linked them with humans: their pelt and their food habits. Sea otter pelts, arguably the finest in the animal kingdom, were fashioned into garments, particularly in northern latitudes, while the presence of sea otters influenced the availability of some marine invertebrates, like snails, clams and abalone, that provided food for coastal people. In addition, sea otters spurred a growing fur trade after Vitus Bering's explorations of the North Pacific in the early 1700s revealed their widespread abundance. This commercial harvest was instrumental in European exploration and settlement of the Pacific Rim and led to the near-extermination of the sea otter, Enhydra lutris, in following centuries.

Largely because of their life history and their direct relations with coastal residents, sea otters are a comparatively well-understood marine mammal. During the past few decades, concern for sea otters has broadened to encompass an interest in global resource conservation and restoration, as well as community ecology. This more recent focus on sea otters now extends to humans far removed from marine environments.

Early sea otters evolved about 12 million years ago from Eurasian and African ancestors. They reached the North Pacific by way of two proposed migration paths, one along the Bering Land Bridge between northeastern Asia and northwestern North America and a second from the Atlantic Ocean that entered the Pacific through a channel in the central Americas. Modern sea otters occur only in the North Pacific and have occupied their current range for the past 1 million to 3 million years.

Publication Year 2000
Title Sea otters past and present perspectives
Authors James L. Bodkin
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Alaska Geographic
Index ID 1013083
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Biological Science Center