Foraging strategies and prey switching in the California sea otter
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Southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis), in recovering from near extinction, are gradually extending their range to include areas from which they have been absent for more than one hundred years. This study took advantage of the otters' relatively sudden arrival in the area near Santa Cruz, California, to monitor their prey selection in the first two years of residence there. Foraging observations revealed that sea urchins (Strongly-locentrotus franciscanus) were heavily preyed upon initially, but virtually disappeared from the diet after one year of sea otter residence. The disappearance of sea urchins was accompanied by an increased use of kelp crabs (Pugettia producta) and the appearance of clams (Gari californica) in the otters' diet. Abalones (Haliotis rufescens) and cancer crabs (Cancer spp.) remained fairly stable as dietary items throughout the two year period. An electivity index was used to quantify sea otter preferences, which corresponded closely with a ranking scheme based on energy intake/unit foraging time calculated for each major prey species. As predicted by optimal foraging theory, sea otters prefer food species of high rank and replace depleted dietary items with those of next highest rank. The process of dietary switching was analyzed with respect to foraging success rates, and it appears that poor success rates, associated with predation on an increasingly rarer prey species (sea urchins), drive sea otters to hunt for different prey. Both patch selection and search image formation appear to function in this process. The potential effects on community structure and stability of predators exhibiting a preference for the most profitable prey are discussed.
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