By consensus, sea otters are the cutest, most charismatic, irresistible creatures on the planet. (Don’t argue. Take a look at the video above. They just are.)

But there’s a lot more to them than just being fascinating and adorable and eating abalone. As Michael James Werner reports for KQED’s Quest science program, sea otters play an unappreciated role as what he calls “climate-change warriors.” How does that work? Here’s how Werner describes it:

Climate change is the result of a buildup of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere. One of the most significant contributors to this phenomenon is carbon dioxide (CO2), a gas emitted by coal-burning power plants and automobiles, among other things.

Kelp forests, where otters hang out, are some of the most efficient absorbers of carbon dioxide known. Like any land-based forest, kelp forests sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, transforming it into the energy they need to build their leafy structure.

But these kelp forests are at risk from sea urchins: small, spiky marine animals that love munching on kelp. With no predators around, sea urchin populations can multiply, forming herds that sweep across the ocean floor devouring entire stands of kelp.

Fortunately, sea otters have an appetite for urchins. The otters help keep urchin populations in check, allowing kelp to flourish and capture more CO2. According to a recent study, otter-supported kelp forests can absorb up to 12 times more CO2 from the atmosphere than if they were just left to the urchins.

  • Narwhal

    There is no published science to substantiate this.

    • Himantura

      Actually thee

      • Himantura

        Sorry. iPhone keyboard. Actually there are quite a few studies of the effects of otters on kelp productivity – a scholar search for otters and kelp should bring up studies by Estes et al, Dayton et al and Williamson (?) et al. Whether kelp effectively sequesters carbon (given sequestration should be for decades and kelp is largely an annual) is up for debate.

Author

Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke (Twitter: @danbrekke) has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor