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At Kirby Park, the accessible trail remains closed due to storm damage.

Sea Otters Make Salt Marshes Stronger

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Brent Hughes at Elkhorn Slough, August 3, 2016. Photo by Kiliii Yuyan.

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byElkhorn Slough Team
onJanuary 31, 2024

In the several decades since sea otters came back to Elkhorn Slough, remarkable changes have occurred in the landscape. At a time when rising sea levels and stronger tidal currents should be increasing erosion, the erosion of creek banks and marsh edges in areas with large otter populations has slowed by an average of 69%. As erosion slows, marsh vegetation is rebounding and putting down dense root systems that can stand firm against flooding, or surging waves.

According to a new study appearing Jan. 31 in Nature, we have the otters themselves to thank for this—specifically, their insatiable appetite for plant-eating marsh crabs.

Topo lines Follow Us
“Crabs eat salt marsh roots, dig into salt marsh soil, and over time can cause a salt marsh to erode and collapse. This had been happening at Elkhorn Slough for decades until sea otters recolonized the estuary in the mid-1980s. After a few decades, in areas the sea otters had recolonized, salt marshes and creekbanks were becoming more stable again, despite rising sea levels, increased water flow from inland sources, and greater pollution."
Brent Hughes, lead author, Associate Professor of Biology at Sonoma State University

GIS Specialist Charlie Endris co-authored this paper, using mapping tools to measure erosion and building on prior studies of creek stability at Elkhorn Slough (Van Dyke and Wasson, 2005). Several other authors are alumni of the Elkhorn Slough Reserve Research team, including lead author Brent Hughes and co-author Kat Beheshti.

Congratulations on a fantastic publication!

Nature Feb 2024

CITATION:
“Top-Predator Recovery Abates Geomorphic Decline of a Coastal Ecosystem,” Brent B. Hughes, Kathryn M. Beheshti, M. Tim Tinker, Christine Angelini, Charlie Endris, Lee Murai, Sean C. Anderson, Sarah Espinosa, Michelle Staedler, Joseph A. Tomoleoni, Madeline Sanchez and Brian R. Silliman. Nature Jan. 31, 2024. DOI: 10.1038/s41586-023-06959-9

Seal laying in salt marsh

Photo by Kiliii Yuyan

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