Sea Otters: A Key Species in Biodiversity

Essay by Emma Yesenia P.R. (edited by Professor Krista Williams)


Sea otters are extremely tender animals that undoubtedly draw attention because of their faces and the ways in which they behave. The otters, despite being very small, have impressive behaviors. Their feeding, reproduction, behavior and adaptations are features that catch people’s attention. Less known to most people is their importance in maintaining a healthy, balanced ecosystem.

The behavior or of the otters is diurnal. That is to say, they are more active in the day. Often, they are seen spinning or covering their faces. This is because they bathe most of the time. They reproduce in the spring. Male otters can be aggressive and when they are reproducing, they make similar sounds to birds when the young are born.  When the offspring are born, the mother has to take care of them because they do not yet have the full coat to float. It takes eight to twelve months for a baby to grow its full coat. When a baby otter is orphaned, other otters adopt it so that it does not die of hunger. It has been observed that many otters suffer when they see their young die, and they often carry the young until they begin to decompose. Although this kind of empathy is characteristic of human behavior, it is found in sea otters.

Marine otters inhabit the North Pacific, from northern Japan to Baja California in Mexico. They live on the coasts to facilitate their search for food. Among their prey are sea urchins, mollusks, crustaceans and some fish. Sea otters use rocks to open the shells and some of their prey. This makes them one of the few mammals that uses tools.

In most of its distribution area, it is considered a “key species” due to the control it exerts on the population of sea urchins, which would otherwise cause extensive damage to the ecosystem of seaweed forests such as kelp, because urchins feed on the bottom of algae stems, causing algae to die. The loss of habitat and nutrients provided by algae forests create a barren environment in the sea. The role of this species as protector of algae forests is more evident in open coasts than in bays and estuaries.

Sea otters, in addition to being tender animals, are extremely important for the care of marine forests and for increasing biodiversity. We must protect sea otters from fishermen or people who consider otters to be an enemy because they compete with them for their food. We should take care of this valuable species, because sea otters play such a valuable role in ecosystem biodiversity.

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