Undated handout photo courtesy of SeaWorld San Diego shows Abby the sea otter. Abby, a 44-pound, five-year-old female otter, arrived at the Monterey Bay Aquarium on June 11 and is on indefinite loan from SeaWorld San Diego. (Photo : Reuters)
A new study by researchers at the University of California- Santa Cruz reveals that sea otters may make a big contribution in fighting global warming than previously thought.
The study, which was released on Friday Sept. 7, analyzed the effect the animals had on sea urchin populations and kelp forests.
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According to the study, researchers gathered 40 years worth of data on otters and kelp blooms from Vancouver Island to the western edge of Alaska's Aleutian Islands. Within the data, researchers discovered that the animals have a "positive indirect effect on kelp biomass by preying on sea urchins, a kelp grazer."
When sea otters are not present, sea urchins graze on kelp, reducing the amount of the carbon-capturing plant. However, when otters are present, urchins hide in crevices and eat the plant scraps, the study found.
UC Santa Cruz professor Chris Wilmers, one of the lead authors in the study, said, "It is significant because it shows that animals can have a big influence on the carbon cycle."
Kelp is key in capturing, or sequestering, CO2 from the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis. According to the study, kelp can absorb as much as 12 times the amount of CO2 from the atmosphere.
Wilmers added, "Right now, all the climate change models and proposed methods of sequestering carbon ignore animals. But animals the world over, working in different ways to influence the carbon cycle, might actually have a large impact."
The researcher and his colleague admitted that increasing the otter population will not help solve the increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere but said it is important to know the effects animals can have on the atmosphere.
"If ecologists can get a better handle on what these impacts are, there might be opportunities for win-win conservation scenarios, whereby animal species are protected or enhances, and carbon gets sequestered," Wilmers said.
The full study will be released in the October issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.
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