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ESR prepress abstract   -  DOI:

Foraging ecology of southern sea otters at the northern range extent informs regional population dynamics

Sophia N. Lyon*, Joseph A. Tomoleoni, Julie L. Yee, Jessica Fujii, Nicole M. Thometz

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) are vital keystone predators throughout the North Pacific that were nearly extirpated during the maritime fur trade. Recovery of southern sea otters (E. l. nereis) has proceeded slowly, with much of their historical range remaining unoccupied, resulting in reduced ecosystem functioning. Numerous studies have used foraging metrics to assess population status of southern sea otters throughout their current range, but little is known about the northern range extent, where a stall in expansion has limited recovery. Thus, we collected census and foraging data of sea otters at Año Nuevo State Park, California, from 2019–2021 to determine sea otter abundance, diet composition, diet diversity, and average energy intake rate at the northern range edge. We then assessed regional population status by comparing values from Año Nuevo with previously collected data from other locations in California, including high-density, range center sites and low-density, range periphery sites. We found that sea otter density at Año Nuevo was greater than surrounding areas at the northern range periphery and average energy intake (95% CI = 9.51 ± 0.91 kcal min-1) more closely resembled values observed at high-density sites. Further, dietary diversity (using Shannon-Wiener index) was intermediate between previously studied high- and low-density populations (H=1.81), with crabs making up the largest proportion of the diet (~56%). Overall, this study highlights possible effects of occupation time and range stagnation, identifies unique aspects of the prey resource base at Año Nuevo, and provides insight into the ongoing lack of northern range expansion.