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.