If you would understand the northern sea otter, study the giant kelp. The seventy thousand sea otters along North America’s Pacific coast do not eat kelp: they are strictly but indiscriminately carnivorous, eating everything from turban snails to Dungeness crabs. Famous users of tools, they grasp rocks to crack open mussels and to hammer abalones loose from the seabed. One of their foods is the sea urchin: sea urchins consume vast quantities of kelp: the more urchins otters swallow, the lusher grows the kelp forest.
Since otters congregate in segregated male and female rafts on the ocean’s surface, floating on their backs with paws upraised, they often rely on well-anchored kelp, wrapping themselves in the crowns of the plants on the water’s surface to keep from drifting aimlessly.
The kelp forest also provides the pathways and holdfasts for many of the animals the otter eats—the fauna inhabiting a macroalgal bed is as diverse as that of a tropical rain forest. And even a ninety-pound otter sometimes needs a shadowy hideaway: orcas have been seen chasing otters and have been blamed for a recent population slump.
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