Conservation & Science

Flippers, not fingers: Sea turtles’ surprising feeding strategies

Imagine you’re trying to eat a snack—a tasty sustainable fish taco, let’s say. But there’s no plate, no cutlery, and you can’t use your hands. Also, gravity is muted, so the taco has a frustrating tendency to float away between bites.

Sea turtles use their flippers in a multitude of ways to help them capture prey, like this green sea turtle in the Gulf of Thailand that’s grasping a jelly before it eats. Photo ©Rich Carey/Shutterstock.com

If this sounds difficult, you’re beginning to understand the challenge of being a hungry sea turtle, stuck with awkward flippers more useful for moving around than for grasping prey.

Still, sea turtles make do with what they have. And, as it turns out, they can (and do) use their forelimbs to corral, swipe and hold food.

Their behavior is the subject of a new publication by Monterey Bay Aquarium researchers Jessica Fujii and Dr. Kyle Van Houtan. It’s something that’s been noted in passing in scientific literature, but Jessica and Kyle say it’s a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of ocean creatures. Read more…

Sea otters’ perilous path to recovery

For more than 30 years, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has been a key contributor to sea otter recovery in California. Aquarium researchers and policy experts have advanced scientific knowledge, promoted improved management and raised public awareness of the contributions sea otters make to healthy coastal ecosystems. A new research paper in the journal Ecography draws on three decades of Aquarium research to establish a link between sparse kelp cover along the California coast and a recent rise in sea otter mortalities from white shark bites. The finding illuminates a new challenge for everyone working toward sea otter recovery: Will sea otters be able to run the gauntlet of white sharks and expand back into their historical range without human assistance? Conservation Research staffer Athena Copenhaver explores the challenge.

Senior research biologist Teri Nicholson fans out her left hand, tapping each finger as she recites a brief list of unusual names: Jiggs, Goldie, Hailey, Milkdud . . .

Exhibit sea otters like Rosa play a key role behind the scenes, as surrogate mothers rearing stranded otter pups.

They might sound as though they belong to beloved pets, but Teri is actually recalling the stranded southern sea otter pups taken in by Monterey Bay Aquarium back in 1984.

Although Teri and her colleagues didn’t know it at the time, these first four orphaned pups became foundational data points in a pioneering sea otter study that spans the lifetime of the Aquarium.

The study, recently published in Ecography, uses information collected from 725 live-stranded sea otters between 1984 and 2015 to illuminate the critical relationship between a healthy kelp canopy, sea otter population recovery, and sea otter deaths from white shark bites.

Sea otter pups, rescued and raised by the Aquarium, are contributing to recovery of the wild population. Photo © Sea Studios Foundation

“By rescuing and rehabilitating stranded animals, we can observe symptoms and determine possible reasons the animal might have stranded,” explains Teri. “And, that means we can look for patterns in threats otters face over time.” Read more…

Blood, bone and brainpower: A deep dive into sea otter DNA

Being a sea otter might sound simple: swim, snack, nap, repeat. Glorious.

Gidget is the face of the sea otter genome.

But the task before Annabel Beichman, a PhD candidate now in her fifth year at UCLA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, is monstrously complex. Annabel is investigating everything that makes up a sea otter, down to its DNA. She hopes what she learns will contribute to recovery of a species that plays a critical role in the health of coastal ecosystems.

Annabel’s effort to sequence the southern sea otter genome (which she wrote about for us last year) is tied to the Monterey Bay Aquarium by one of our exhibit otters, a 9-year-old female with a blonde, gray-streaked face, named Gidget. Through the DNA that Annabel has been laboring to sequence, assemble and annotate, Gidget will become the embodiment of the sea otter genome. And the work is nearly complete.

‘A reference point for generations’

“Gidget is going to be a reference point for future genetic studies of southern sea otters for years to come,” Annabel says. That research stands to help a species that has been listed as threatened for decades. So, she says, “Gidget’s contributing to the conservation of her entire species.” Read more…

California’s sea otters need more space to grow

Southern sea otters are a common (and adorable) sight off the Aquarium’s back deck. But the latest otter count shows the population isn’t growing at the pace we’d hoped it would. In order for the species to truly recover, otters need to return to their old habitats along California’s coast—places they haven’t inhabited for over 100 years.

For the second year in a row, California’s sea otter population index has topped an encouraging number: 3,090. That’s the minimum threshold before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can consider delisting southern sea otters as a federally threatened species.

A southern sea otter with her newborn pup in the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Great Tide Pool. Photo by Tyson Rininger

But the 2017 sea otter count is down quite a bit from 2016 levels, and even the three-year rolling average (the population index), on which federal wildlife managers base their decisions, is down by about 100.

Regardless of year-to-year variations, southern sea otters number far fewer today than they did historically, and their current geographic range represents just a fraction of the waters they occupied before fur traders drove them to the brink of extinction in the 19th century.

To reach the optimum sustainable population under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Fish and Wildlife Service recovery plan, the southern sea otter population would likely have to reach at least 8,400 animals in California alone.

A remnant colony of sea otters was rediscovered off the Big Sur coast in the 1930s. Photo © William L. Morgan/California Views Photo Archives

“What we really want to see is the population reinhabiting areas of its historical range,” says Andrew Johnson who, as conservation research operations manager for Monterey Bay Aquarium,  oversees the sea otter program. “We’ve seen how positively coastal ecosystems respond to the presence of sea otters—from the return of thriving kelp beds along the rocky coast, to renewed productivity of wetlands like Elkhorn Slough. We know that many other areas along the California coast would benefit significantly from sea otters’ return.” Read more…

Playing your part through citizen science

On Earth Day,  Monterey Bay Aquarium staff and volunteers joined in March for Science events along with tens of thousands of people in more than 600 cities around the world. With representatives at marches in seven cities across the U.S. and Europe, the Aquarium stood up for one of our founding principles: that evidence-based science should drive conservation action.

From recording and sharing wildlife observations to reporting stranded sea otters, there are many ways to contribute as a citizen scientist.

It’s clear that the March for Science isn’t just about scientists, and it’s more than a one-day phenomenon. People of all ages and backgrounds participated, because you don’t have to be a trained scientist to appreciate the benefits science offers—or to contribute to the scientific process.

Much of the science taking place at the Aquarium, from saving sea otters to tracking white sharks, relies on dedicated citizens quite literally taking science into their own hands. Thanks to our increasingly connected society, opportunities abound for everyone from middle school students to retired teachers to participate in citizen science at the Aquarium—and beyond. Here are a few of the many ways you can become a citizen scientist. Read more…

Using science to save ocean wildlife

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a science-driven organization, and rigorous science underpins all of our public policy, research and education programs. Much of our research centers on marine life that visitors can also see in our exhibits – from sea otters to sharks and tunas, even our giant kelp forest. Here’s some of what we’ve learned over the past 30-plus years that is contributing to conservation of key ocean species and ecosystems.

A sea otter works to crack a mussel shell open on a rock off the coast of Moss Landing, California. Photo by Jessica Fujii

Sea otters crack open tool-use secrets

Revolutionary female scientist Jane Goodall was the first person to discover that chimps use tools and live within complex social systems. Our team of female researchers are walking in Jane’s footsteps with their recent studies on use of tools by another mammal: the sea otter. When observing sea otters along the Monterey Peninsula, sometimes we can hear a “crack, crack, crack!” above the roar of the tide. That sound comes from sea otters using rocks and other tools to open prey items, such as crabs or bivalves, as they float on their backs. Sea otters are avid tool users, but until recently not much was known about how sea otters choose their tools, what aspects of their environments influence tool use, or whether they teach tool use to other otters. The Aquarium’s decades of research into sea otter behavior provided years of observations of sea otter foraging and tool-use behavior, including sea otter pups pounding empty fists against their chests. Could such activity be instinctual? Research Biologist Jessica Fujii has devoted much of her young career to studying the frequency and types of tools used and whether tool use can be coded in sea otter genes. Jessica is looking ahead to see how sea otters learn, teach, and eventually master tool use in the wild.

A sea otter rests in an eelgrass bed in Elkhorn Slough National
Estuarine Research Reserve. Sea otters contribute to the recovery of eelgrass and ecosystem health in this vital wetland on Monterey Bay. Photo by Ron Eby.

Sea otter surrogacy helps restore Elkhorn Slough

With 15 years of experience rescuing, rehabilitating, and then releasing surrogate-reared sea otters into Elkhorn Slough, an estuary near Moss Landing, California, the sea otter research team at the Aquarium began to wonder how and if their work was affecting the otter population there. Does releasing a few animals into the slough each year really make any difference? After crunching some serious numbers from the surrogacy program and the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) annual sea otter census, the researchers discovered that it did. Nearly 60 percent of the 140 or so sea otters living in Elkhorn Slough today are there as a result of the Aquarium’s surrogacy program. While we’d known that sea otters served as ecosystem engineers for the giant kelp forests in Monterey Bay, we have now documented that sea otters in Elkhorn Slough are restoring the health and biodiversity of the estuary. This gives us further insights into how sea otters may contribute to coastal ecosystem resilience. Read more…

Our best Conservation & Science stories of 2016

It’s been an exciting year for ocean conservation at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

We’ve shared how our care for the animals in our living collections—including snowy ploverscomb jellies, ocean sunfish and Pacific seahorses—contibutes to the conservation of their wild kin.

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The Aquarium helps rehabilitate threatened Western snowy plovers.

We’ve visited the Canadian cousins of Monterey Bay’s sea otters, explored how sea otters use tools, and assisted scientists working to decode the sea otter genome.

We’ve collaborated with our colleagues in Baja, Mexico on a number of conservation missions—one of them involving ancient shark mummies. And we joined forces with U.S. aquariums and zoos to call for stronger protections for the endangered vaquita porpoises of the Gulf of California.

As 2016 comes to a close, let’s look back at the top 10 highlights from this blog:

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A white shark approaches schooling sardines.

10. Camera to Crack a White Shark MysteryOur senior reseach scientist teamed up with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute for a high-tech mission: to capture video footage of great white sharks in their most mysterious habitat.

“Some of the engineering team said it was an impossible job,” MBARI Engineer Thom Maughan recalled. “But I’m attracted to those opportunities.”

Read more…

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