Human Elements: How otters can help recover imperiled ecosystems

They might look like 'a combination between a kitten and a puppy' but the charismatic creatures play a big role in the PNW.

Dr. Shawn Larson spends her days in the field watching her favorite furry sea mammal ride the waves of the Pacific Ocean.

The curator of conservation research at the Seattle Aquarium has studied sea otters for 27 years. She’s fascinated by the unique properties that allow them to survive in ice cold waters and how they can help recover some of the sea’s most imperiled ecosystems.

Larson knows otters on an intimate level: She has studied how they breed in captivity, the presence of reproductive hormones and their genetic diversity. She has also studied their signature feature: Sea otters have a thick layer of fur that is the densest in the entire animal kingdom. 

“In some areas of their body, in a square inch they have up to a million hairs,” Larson said. Compare that with the human head, which has an average of 100,000 hairs. But that thick fur almost drove otters into extinction during the fur trade. It’s estimated that 99% of the world’s sea otters were lost, as they were captured for their luxurious fur.

As otter populations recover, they play a vital role in our ecosystem. Sea otters eat urchins, preventing them from overtaking the sea floor. That promotes kelp growth, which in turn helps remove carbon from the atmosphere. 

“It just makes me happy watching them, period, but then to know the role that they play in the ecosystem and how they can stabilize it makes me even more happy and joyous and grateful that they're there,” Larson said.

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