Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Decline in Alaskan sea otters affects bald eagles' diet

07.10.2008
Eagles shift their diet from aquatic marine animals to birds

Sea otters are known as a keystone species, filling such an important niche in ocean communities that without them, entire ecosystems can collapse. Scientists are finding, however, that sea otters can have even farther-reaching effects that extend to terrestrial communities and alter the behavior of another top predator: the bald eagle.

In nearshore marine communities, towering kelp can reach heights of 250 feet and function much like trees in a forest, providing food, homes and protection for fish and invertebrates. The most important enemies of these giant algae are tiny sea urchins, only inches in diameter, which live on the kelp's holdfasts and eat its tissue. When urchin populations become too large, they can defoliate entire kelp forests, leaving only barren remains.

Enter the sea otter. Otters can eat the spiky urchins whole, making them the major urchin predator. The otters' presence keeps urchin populations in check and maintains the balance of the ecosystem.

Scientists have known about these kelp forest community interactions since the 1970s. But in the October issue of the journal Ecology, Robert Anthony and colleagues report that the presence or absence of otters can also affect the diet of bald eagles, a neighboring terrestrial predator. Anthony is an ecologist with the Oregon Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit of the U.S. Geological Survey and Oregon State University.

Bald eagles live in high densities along the Aleutian archipelago off the coast of Alaska and place their nests on islets, coastal cliffs and shoreline sea stacks. Historically, more than 90 percent of the eagles' food comes from the ocean. Sea otters once also occupied a large range of coastal marine environments near these islands, but in recent years, otter populations have declined in response to their own main predator.

"All of the available data point to increased numbers of killer whales as the direct cause of the sea otter decline in southwest Alaska," says coauthor Jim Estes of the U.S.G.S. and the University of California at Santa Cruz. "The otter decline has caused a phase shift in the coastal ecosystem from a kelp dominated phase state to a deforested phase state."

This shift means many fewer kelp forest fish for the eagles to eat. In response, the eagles have adjusted their foraging tactics. Anthony and his colleagues surveyed remains of bald eagle prey in their nests during 1993 and 1994, when otters were abundant and the kelp forests were healthy, and in 2000, 2001 and 2002, when otters were scarce and the kelp forests had collapsed. They found that when otters were abundant, eagle prey consisted of predominantly kelp-forest fish and sea otter pups. When the otters were rare, however, the proportion of marine birds in the eagles' diet was much higher.

Anthony explains that because the eagles defend territories in dense patches along the coastline and there are few terrestrial animals to eat, they must be flexible in what they hunt.

"These bald eagles are opportunistic foragers as a consequence of their evolutionary history," he says. "They've developed foraging territories they defend against members of the same species along these coastlines, and the terrestrial environment provides very little for them. So they forage over the open water."

Anthony and his colleagues also found that the eagles had more young on average during 2000-2002, a fact that Anthony believes might be a result of a high caloric content in the eagles' increasingly seabird-dominated diet.

"Across the range of this species, their diet can be quite varied, but here it appears as though the change in diet had either a neutral or positive effect," he says. The propensity of the eagles to adapt quickly to a changing environment may have allowed them to flourish, but Anthony also cautions that adapting to this scenario might be difficult for more specialized predators.

The results are the first to show that the presence or absence of otters influences a terrestrial animal, and that the complex food web linkages can reach as far as five different food chain levels: from sea otters to sea urchins, kelp, marine fish and finally bald eagles.

"Top-down linkages can be very distant from their origin," says Anthony. "The effects of top predators can ripple throughout the ecosystem in ways we're just beginning to understand."

Christine Buckley | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.esa.org

More articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation:

nachricht How does the loss of species alter ecosystems?
18.05.2017 | Deutsches Zentrum für integrative Biodiversitätsforschung (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig

nachricht Excess diesel emissions bring global health & environmental impacts
16.05.2017 | International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)

All articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: A quantum walk of photons

Physicists from the University of Würzburg are capable of generating identical looking single light particles at the push of a button. Two new studies now demonstrate the potential this method holds.

The quantum computer has fuelled the imagination of scientists for decades: It is based on fundamentally different phenomena than a conventional computer....

Im Focus: Turmoil in sluggish electrons’ existence

An international team of physicists has monitored the scattering behaviour of electrons in a non-conducting material in real-time. Their insights could be beneficial for radiotherapy.

We can refer to electrons in non-conducting materials as ‘sluggish’. Typically, they remain fixed in a location, deep inside an atomic composite. It is hence...

Im Focus: Wafer-thin Magnetic Materials Developed for Future Quantum Technologies

Two-dimensional magnetic structures are regarded as a promising material for new types of data storage, since the magnetic properties of individual molecular building blocks can be investigated and modified. For the first time, researchers have now produced a wafer-thin ferrimagnet, in which molecules with different magnetic centers arrange themselves on a gold surface to form a checkerboard pattern. Scientists at the Swiss Nanoscience Institute at the University of Basel and the Paul Scherrer Institute published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.

Ferrimagnets are composed of two centers which are magnetized at different strengths and point in opposing directions. Two-dimensional, quasi-flat ferrimagnets...

Im Focus: World's thinnest hologram paves path to new 3-D world

Nano-hologram paves way for integration of 3-D holography into everyday electronics

An Australian-Chinese research team has created the world's thinnest hologram, paving the way towards the integration of 3D holography into everyday...

Im Focus: Using graphene to create quantum bits

In the race to produce a quantum computer, a number of projects are seeking a way to create quantum bits -- or qubits -- that are stable, meaning they are not much affected by changes in their environment. This normally needs highly nonlinear non-dissipative elements capable of functioning at very low temperatures.

In pursuit of this goal, researchers at EPFL's Laboratory of Photonics and Quantum Measurements LPQM (STI/SB), have investigated a nonlinear graphene-based...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Marine Conservation: IASS Contributes to UN Ocean Conference in New York on 5-9 June

24.05.2017 | Event News

AWK Aachen Machine Tool Colloquium 2017: Internet of Production for Agile Enterprises

23.05.2017 | Event News

Dortmund MST Conference presents Individualized Healthcare Solutions with micro and nanotechnology

22.05.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Physicists discover mechanism behind granular capillary effect

24.05.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Measured for the first time: Direction of light waves changed by quantum effect

24.05.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Marine Conservation: IASS Contributes to UN Ocean Conference in New York on 5-9 June

24.05.2017 | Event News

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>