Using museum data of adult specimens whose sex, age, and locality are known, we studied temporal and geographical body size trends among the otter, Lutra lutra, in Norway. We found that body size of the otters increased during the last quarter of the twentieth century, and suggest that this trend is related to increased food availability from fish farming and possibly also to energy saving due to elevated sea temperatures. Birth year and death year explained 38.8 and 43.5%, respectively, of the variation in body size. Body size of otters was positively related to latitude, thus conforming to Bergmann's rule.
Despite the growth in knowledge about the effects of a warming Arctic on its cold-adapted species, the mechanisms by which these changes affect animal populations remain poorly understood. Increasing temperatures, declining sea ice and altered wind and precipitation patterns all may affect the fitness and abundance of species through multiple direct and indirect pathways. Here we demonstrate previously unknown effects of rain-on-snow (ROS) events, winter precipitation, and ice tidal surges on the Arctic's largest land mammal. Using novel field data across seven years and three Alaskan and Russian sites, we show arrested skeletal growth in juvenile muskoxen resulting from unusually dry winter conditions and gestational ROS events, with the inhibitory effects on growth from ROS events lasting up to three years post-partum. Further, we describe the simultaneous entombment of 52 muskoxen in ice during a Chukchi Sea winter tsunami (ivuniq in Iñupiat), and link rapid freezing to entrapment of Arctic whales and otters. Our results illustrate how once unusual, but increasingly frequent Arctic weather events affect some cold-adapted mammals, and suggest that an understanding of species responses to a changing Arctic can be enhanced by coalescing groundwork, rare events, and insights from local people.
Ranch-reared mink (Mustela vison) were used as a model in an experimental trial to investigate the potential effects of exposure to two petroleum products on sea otters (Enhydra lutris). Mink were exposed either dermally on one occasion 60 days prior to breeding or via low level contamination of their diets daily from 60 days prior to breeding (January 1994) until weaning of kits (June 1994). For dermal exposure, we placed mink in either a slick of Alaskan North Slope crude oil (n = 24) or bunker C fuel oil (n = 24) on sea water or sea water alone (n = 10) for 1 min. For dietary exposure, we fed mink rations containing 500 ppm of either Alaskan North Slope crude oil (n = 24) or bunker C fuel oil (n = 24; control, n = 15). The number of liveborn kits did not differ significantly among mink exposed dermally (5.0 kits/female for crude oil and 6.5 kits/female for bunker C fuel oil) and unexposed controls (5.3 kits/female). However, only 2.3 and 0.7 kits were produced per female for those exposed through the diet to crude oil and bunker C fuel oil, respectively. Females with reduced reproductive success had no clinical signs of toxicosis or behavioral abnormalities. In addition, kits of females exposed through the diet had poor survival to weaning. Once mature, kits born to females exposed to bunker C fuel oil in the diet had significantly reduced reproductive success (3.4 kits/female) although their only exposure to the petroleum products was in utero or during nursing. Therefore, it is possible that sea otter populations consuming contaminated food sources or colonizing previously oiled habitats will have reduced reproductive success.
Studies following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska indicated that river otters (Lontra canadensis) from oiled regions displayed symptoms of degraded health, including reduced body weight. We examined the fate of ingested oil in the digestive tract and its effects on gut function in captive river otters. Fifteen wild-caught males were assigned to three groups, two of which were given weathered crude oil in food (i.e., control, 5 ppm day(-1), and 50 ppm day(-1)) under controlled conditions at the Alaska Sealife Center. Using glass beads as non-specific digesta markers and stable isotope analysis, we determined the effects of ingested oil on retention time and nutrient uptake. Our data indicated that oil ingestion reduced marker retention time when we controlled for activity and meal size. Fecal isotope ratios suggested that absorption of lipids in the oiled otters might have been affected by reduced retention time of food. In addition, a dilution model indicated that as much as 80% of ingested oil was not absorbed in high-dose animals. Thus, while the ingestion of large quantities of weathered crude oil appears to reduce absorption of oil hydrocarbons and may alleviate systemic effects, it may concurrently affect body condition by impacting digestive function.
We use age distributions of sea otters (Enhydra lutris) found dead on beaches of western Prince William Sound, Alaska, between 1976 and 1998 in conjunction with time-varying demographic models to test for lingering effects from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Our results show that sea otters in this area had decreased survival rates in the years following the spill and that the effects of the spill on annual survival increased rather than dissipated for older animals. Otters born after the 1989 spill were affected less than those alive in March 1989, but do show continuing negative effects through 1998. Population-wide effects of the spill appear to have slowly dissipated through time, due largely to the loss of cohorts alive during the spill. Our results demonstrate that the difficult-to-detect long-term impacts of environmental disasters may still be highly significant and can be rigorously analyzed by using a combination of population data, modeling techniques, and statistical analyses.
Effects of climate change on animal behavior and cascading ecosystem responses are rarely evaluated. In coastal Alaska, social river otters (Lontra Canadensis), largely males, cooperatively forage on schooling fish and use latrine sites to communicate group associations and dominance. Conversely, solitary otters, mainly females, feed on intertidal-demersal fish and display mutual avoidance via scent marking. This behavioral variability creates "hotspots" of nutrient deposition and affects plant productivity and diversity on the terrestrial landscape. Because the abundance of schooling pelagic fish is predicted to decline with climate change, we developed a spatially-explicit individual-based model (IBM) of otter behavior and tested six scenarios based on potential shifts to distribution patterns of schooling fish. Emergent patterns from the IBM closely mimicked observed otter behavior and landscape use in the absence of explicit rules of intraspecific attraction or repulsion. Model results were most sensitive to rules regarding spatial memory and activity state following an encounter with a fish school. With declining availability of schooling fish, the number of social groups and the time simulated otters spent in the company of conspecifics declined. Concurrently, model results suggested an elevation of defecation rate, a 25% increase in nitrogen transport to the terrestrial landscape, and significant changes to the spatial distribution of "hotspots" with declines in schooling fish availability. However, reductions in availability of schooling fish could lead to declines in otter density over time.
Noninvasive methods were validated for monitoring fecal metabolites of reproductive hormones (total estrogens and progestagens) in sea otters. Several captive female sea otters were sampled an average of two to three times per week over at least 1 year to document the reproductive hormone levels within each major reproductive event (estrus, anestrus, luteal phase, and pregnancy). We report significant differences in reproductive hormone levels consistent with most reproductive categories, as well as the minimal number of consecutive samples needed to accurately determine pregnancy using these methods.
1. Growth models for body mass and length were fitted to data collected from 1842 sea otters Enhydra lutris shot or live-captured throughout south-west Alaska between 1967 and 2004. Growth curves were constructed for each of two main year groups: 1967-71 when the population was at or near carrying capacity and 1992-97 when the population was in steep decline. Analyses of data collected from animals caught during 2004, when the population density was very low, were precluded by a small sample size and consequently only examined incidentally to the main growth curves. 2. Growth curves demonstrated a significant increase in body mass and body length at age in the 1990s. Asymptotic values of body mass were 12-18% higher in the 1990s than in the 1960s/70s, and asymptotic values for body length were 10-11% higher between the same periods. Data collected in 2004 suggest a continued increase in body size, with nearly all data points for mass and length falling significantly above the 1990s growth curves. 3. In addition to larger asymptotic values for mass and length, the rate of growth towards asymptotic values was more rapid in the 1990s than in the 1960s/70s: sea otters reached 95% of asymptotic body mass and body length 1-2 years earlier in the 1990s. 4. Body condition (as measured by the log mass/log length ratio) was significantly greater in males than in females. There was also an increasing trend from the 1960s/70s through 2004 despite much year-to-year variation. 5. Population age structures differed significantly between the 1960s/70s and the 1990s with the latter distribution skewed toward younger age classes (indicating an altered lx function) suggesting almost complete relaxation of age-dependent mortality patterns (i.e. those typical of food-limited populations). 6. This study spanned a period of time over which the population status of sea otters in the Aleutian archipelago declined precipitously from levels at or near equilibrium densities at some islands in the 1960s/70s to