DIET AND FORAGING BEHAVIOR OF SEA OTTERS IN SOUTHEAST ALASKA

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Abstract

Abstract: Direct observations of feeding sea otters (Enhydra lutris) at 11 sites in southeast Alaska showed infaunal clams to be the primary prey utilized by otters throughout the region. Foraging dive times associated with clam and sea urchin prey were significantly longer than those for more easily captured prey (crabs and mussels). Dive times and surface intervals were also generally correlated with water depth or apparent difficulty in obtaining buried prey. Male otters, which fed more extensively on clams than females, made significantly longer foraging dives than females. Foraging success remained high, even at sites where prey numbers were found to be very low during a related study. The very deeply burrowing geoduck clam (Panope abrupta), while common at several otter feeding sites, was rarely captured by otters. These results, combined with those of a companion study on prey numbers, indicate that butter clams (Saxidomus giganteus) account for the majority of the sea otter diet in southeast Alaska, and that sea urchins may represent relatively short-term prey in comparison to infaunal bivalves in regions where both prey types co-exist. Furthermore, the importance of butter clams in the sea otter diet and the tendency for this bivalve to retain chronically high levels of paralytic shellfish poisoning toxins in southeast Alaska increases the probability that toxic phytoplankton blooms influence sea otter distribution in this region.

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