In his new book, Serendipity: An Ecologist’s Quest to Understand Nature (UC Press, May 2016), marine ecologist James Estes recounts the simple twists of fate that sent him to the Aleutian Islands in 1970 to study the distribution and abundance of sea otters. It was the start of a remarkable journey of discovery that led to profound insights about the complexity of ecological interactions and the importance of predators in natural ecosystems.
His research showed that sea otters are a “keystone species” that maintains kelp forest ecosystems by controlling populations of kelp-grazing sea urchins. Sea otters had been hunted to near extinction for the fur trade, and the recovery of their populations was uneven and fragmented across the Aleutian Archipelago. This enabled Estes to compare coastal ecosystems around islands with and without sea otters, and he found that there were no kelp forests without sea otters.
His findings have become a classic example of how apex predators shape ecosystems. Estes continued to build on his early observations over the following decades, carefully documenting the interactions among sea otters, sea urchins, and other elements of kelp forest ecosystems. He conducted long-term studies tracking the changes at sites where sea otters recolonized an island and expanded their numbers, and at other sites where once thriving populations underwent sudden declines.
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article: Tim Stephens