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The rise of an apex predator following deglaciation
AuthorWilliams, Perry J.
Hooten, Mevin B.
Esslinger, George G.
Womble, Jamie N.
Bodkin, James L.
Bower, Michael R.
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Aim Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) are an apex predator of the nearshore marine community and nearly went extinct at the turn of the 20th century. Reintroductions and legal protection allowed sea otters to re-colonize much of their former range. Our objective was to chronicle the colonization of this apex predator in Glacier Bay, Alaska, to help understand the mechanisms that governed their successful colonization. Location Glacier Bay is a tidewater glacier fjord in southeastern Alaska that was entirely covered by glaciers in the mid-18th century. Since then, it has endured the fastest tidewater glacier retreat in recorded history. Methods We collected and analysed several data sets, spanning 20 years, to document the spatio-temporal dynamics of an apex predator expanding into an area where they were formerly absent. We used novel quantitative tools to model the occupancy, abundance and colonization dynamics of sea otters, while accounting for uncertainty in the data collection process, the ecological process and model parameters. Results Twenty years after sea otters were first observed colonizing Glacier Bay, they became one of the most abundant and widely distributed marine mammal. The population grew exponentially at a rate of 20% per year. They colonized Glacier Bay at a maximum rate of 6 km per year, with faster colonization rates occurring early in the colonization process. During colonization, sea otters selected shallow areas, close to shore, with a steep bottom slope, and a relatively simple shoreline complexity index. Main conclusions The growth and expansion of sea otters in Glacier Bay demonstrate how legal protection and translocation of apex predators can facilitate their successful establishment into a community in which they were formerly absent. The success of sea otters was, in part, a consequence of habitat that was left largely unperturbed by humans for the past 250 years. Further, sea otters and other marine predators, whose distribution is limited by ice, have the potential to expand in distribution and abundance, reshaping future marine communities in the wake of deglaciation and global loss of sea ice.
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