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Behavioral observations and stable isotopes reveal high individual variation and little seasonal variation in sea otter diets in Southeast Alaska

Nicole LaRoche*, Sydney King, Matthew C. Rogers, Ginny Eckert, Heidi C. Pearson

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Two complementary approaches were used to assess year-round variation in sea otter (Enhydra lutris) diet around Prince of Wales Island (POW) in southern Southeast Alaska, a region characterized by mixed bottom habitat. We observed sea otters foraging to determine diet composition during the spring and summer. Then, we obtained sea otter vibrissae, which record temporal foraging patterns as they grow, from subsistence hunters to identify year-round changes in sea otter diets via stable isotope analysis of carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N). We compared the stable isotopes from sea otter vibrissae and sea otter prey items that were collected during spring, summer, and winter. Overall, year-round sea otter diet estimates from stable isotope signatures and visual observations from spring and summer were dominated by clams in terms of biomass, with butter clams (Saxidomus gigantea) as the most common clam species seen during visual observations. Our results indicate that these sea otters, when considered together at a regional level around POW, do not exhibit shifts in the main prey source by season or location. However, individual sea otter diets identified by stable isotopes had a strong individual-level variation. Behavioral variation among individual sea otters may be a primary driving factor in sea otter diet composition. This study provides quantitative diet composition data for modeling predictions of invertebrate population estimates that may aid in the future management of shellfisheries and subsistence hunting and the development of co-management strategies for this protected species.