The Blog

Study: Otters eating urchins reduces greenhouse gas

From KTOO in Juneau Alaska, a public radio piece about our sea otter research with an Alaskan twist.  Clink on the play button below to listen.

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UCSC biologist: Sea otters could help fight climate change

From the San Jose Mercury News and Santa Cruz Sentinel, an interesting article relating our recent otter/carbon paper to California’s new carbon emission trading program.

Designated by the California Air Resources Board, carbon offset credits qualify as environmental processes scientifically proven to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases.

The board has four carbon offset categories: forestry management, tree planting in urban areas, capture and destruction of methane emissions from livestock manure, and destruction of coolant gases. Whereas the first two directly suck carbon out of the atmosphere, the latter two eliminate existing greenhouse gases.

Legally establishing these categories takes time. The forestry project alone took a decade to make scientific sense within the framework of carbon credits, said board spokesman Stanley Young.

Otters currently do not fit into any of these categories. And Wilmers, an assistant professor in UCSC’s Environmental Studies Department, acknowledges that getting them in the game would be difficult.
“Literally trying to do that in the future would take a lot of work,” he said.

But officials involved in evaluating offset programs for the board say the idea is not entirely out of the question. The board, eventually, intends to expand its list. A wetland management category, for example, is among the most promising potential additions — and has been in the works for several years.

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Webinar on sea otter impacts on ecosystem carbon

I gave a webinar on our work on sea otters and ecosystem carbon through the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy yesterday.  Check it out below…

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Otters’ Effect on Kelp Offers Clues to Predators’ Link to CO2

From KUSP, another nice NPR piece about our sea otter research.  Clink on the play button below to listen.

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Why the Beaver Should Thank the Wolf

From the NY Times, a great op-ed piece connecting our work on sea otters with wolves and elk in Yellowstone!  Couldn’t be more perfect.  Notice the little Sea Otter poking his head out of the reads below the elk.

Scientists call this sequence of impacts down the food chain a “trophic cascade.” The wolf is connected to the elk is connected to the aspen is connected to the beaver. Keeping these connections going ensures healthy, functioning ecosystems, which in turn support human life.

Another example is the effect of sea otters on kelp, which provides food and shelter for a host of species. Like the aspen for the elk, kelp is a favorite food of sea urchins. By hunting sea urchins, otters protect the vitality of the kelp and actually boost overall biodiversity. Without them, the ecosystem tends to collapse; the coastal reefs become barren, and soon not much lives there.

Read the full article here.

Here’s the full photo!

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Otters and Climate Change

From NPR – Living on Earth a nice radio piece on our recent sea otter article.  Just press on the play button below to listen.

 

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Sea Otters Fight Climate Change

We’ve hit the big time, getting mocked in the Onion!

Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, found that kelp forests were able to absorb 12 times more carbon dioxide in the presence of sea otters, a result of the aquatic mammals preying on kelp-eating sea urchins. What do you think?

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Sea Otters Strike a Blow for the Environment?

From National Geographic, a short well-done article on our recent sea otter – carbon pub.

When hungry sea otters whack spiky urchins against rocks on their chests, the mammals may also be striking a blow against global warming.

By preying on urchins—which themselves devour greenhouse gas-absorbing kelp forests—the sea otters encourage the plants to flourish.

The result? An otter-assisted kelp forest “can absorb as much as 12 times the amount of CO2 [carbon dioxide] from the atmosphere than if it were subject to ravenous sea urchins,” according to the study, published Friday in the journal Frontiers of Ecology and the Environment.

Based on a new analysis of 40 years of data on both otters and Pacific kelp forests off Alaska and Canada, the study concludes that “otters ‘undoubtedly have a strong influence’ on the cycle of CO2 storage,” if only in their local environments.

So are sea otters the new global warming “warriors,” as some headlines have it?

Not exactly, said Jeffrey Dukes of the Purdue Climate Change Research Center in Indiana.

The otter-induced increase in CO2 absorption is “relatively inconsequential in terms of the big picture of climate change,” said Dukes, who wasn’t part of the study. But, he added, it’s “an interesting study identifying how dramatically a predator can alter the cycling of carbon in an ecosystem.”

Study co-author Chris Wilmers, a biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, agreed that the offset is “unlikely to have a big effect on global warming” worldwide.

But while otters alone can’t do the job, such seemingly incremental, natural advantages may become ever more important as we look for ways to blunt climate change’s impacts, according to study co-author James Estes, also of UC Santa Cruz.

“The general phenom in which the interactions between species are linked to the carbon cycle,” he said, “is going to be very important.”

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The ghost cat: Mountain lion slips across Highway 17 regularly

From the Santa Cruz Sentinel/San Jose Mercury News, a nice article on 16m’s penchant for crossing roads.  Not sure where they got the name Atlas from, but so it goes.  By the way, that large scare he has in the photo above on his rump – we think he got hit and dragged by a car on hwy 17, but he survived and is doing well now.

But what sets this mountain lion apart is the expanse of his territory. Atlas, at he is sometimes known, roams the mountains on either side of Highway 17, crossing the busy road regularly to reinforce his domain. He is distinguishing himself not only by the risks he assumes, but by surviving them.

“What he’s basically done is set up a home range that has Highway 17 as a line right down the middle of it,” said Chris Wilmers, who heads UCSC’s Santa Cruz Puma Project, which has tagged and tracked nearly 40 lions throughout the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Read the full Sentinel article here.

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Predators, Prey and Lyme Disease

From the NY Times, a great article on our recent PNAS paper showing a possibly important role of predators in the emergence of Lyme disease.  Be sure to read the comments section.  Taal does a brilliant job of answering a number of tough questions about the study.

Deer ticks are aptly named, in a sense; a Northeastern deer can carry over 1,000 of these ticks on its body. But as far as humans are concerned, the ticks might be more relevantly called mouse ticks. That’s because white-footed mice and other small mammals, not deer, are now known by scientists to be major carriers of Lyme disease.

Lyme disease is spreading in the Northeast and the Midwest, and according to the national Centers for Disease Control, the number of annual cases over the past decade has been increasing. However, no one is quite sure why. In a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers tried to figure out what is driving the proliferation of Lyme disease in human populations by studying populations patterns in animals that interact with ticks. Their study suggests that large predators like coyotes and foxes that aren’t typically associated with Lyme disease transmission may have a big impact on the spread of the disease.

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