Sea otter predation and the distribution of bivalve prey in the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve
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Sea otter predation and the distribution of bivalve prey in the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve

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    The California sea otter population is gradually expanding in size and geographic range and is consequently invading new feeding grounds, including bays and estuaries that are home to extensive populations of bivalve prey. One such area is the Elkhorn Slough, where otters have apparently established a spring and summer communal feeding and resting area. In anticipation of future otter foraging in the slough, an extensive baseline database on bivalve densities, size distributions, biomasses, and burrow depths has been established for three potential bivalve prey species, Saxidomus nuttalli, Tresus nutallii, and Zirphaea pilsbryi. In 1986, the Elkhorn Slough otters were foraging predominately at two areas immediately east and west of the Highway 1 bridge (Skipper's and the PG&E Outfall). Extensive subtidal populations of Saxidomus nuttalli and Tresus nuttallii occur in these areas. Shell records collected at these study areas indicated that sea otters were foraging selectively on Saxidomus over Tresus. The reason for this apparent preference was not clear. At the Skipper's study site, 51% of the shell record was composed of Saxidomus, yet this species accounted for only 16% of the in situ biomass, and only 39% of the available clams. Tresus represented 49% of the shell record at Skipper's, yet this species accounted for 84% of the in situ biomass and 61% of the available clams. There was no difference in mean burrow depth between the two species at this site so availability does not explain the disparity in consumption. At the PG&E Outfall, Saxidomus represents 66% of the in situ biomass and 81% of the available clams, while Tresus accounts for 34% of the in situ biomass and 19% of the available clams. Saxidomus accounts for 96% of the shell record at this site vs. 4% for Tresus, again indicating that the otters were preying on Saxidomus out of proportion to their density or biomass. High densities and biomasses of a third species, Zirphaea pilsbryi, occur in areas where sea otters were observed to be foraging, yet no cast-off Zirphaea shells were found. Although it is possible this species was not represented in the shell record because the otters were simply chewing up the shells, it is more likely this species is avoided by sea otters. There were relatively few sea otters in the Elkhorn Slough in 1986 compared to the previous two years. This, coupled with high bivalve densities, precluded any quantitative comparison of bivalve densities before and after the 1986 sea otter occupation. Qualitative observations made during the course of this study, and quantitative observations from previous studies indicate that, after 3 years, sea otters are not yet significantly affecting bivalve densities in the Elkhorn Slough.
  • Content Notes:
    Brian S. Anderson, Rikk G. Kvitek.

    "May 15, 1987."

    System requirements: Adobe Acrobat Reader.

    Includes bibliographical references.

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