Sea otters are impossibly adorable furballs, whose pup-parenting, shell-cracking antics make them ecotourism and aquarium superstars. Todd McLeish’s Return of the Sea Otter gives a more rounded portrait of these apex predators (males sometimes bite females’ noses off during mating!) and their keystone role in coastal ecosystems.
Backed by extensive research and three years of field outings, the book recounts how the nineteenth-century otter pelt trade decimated populations from the Aleutian Islands down to California. Without otters to keep snails, sea urchins, clams, and crabs in balance, invertebrate populations ballooned, setting a new normal for commercial fishermen and Native Americans.
Now, with steadily rebounding numbers of otters chowing down on all this tasty and valuable seafood, there is ramped-up conflict over wildlife management and fishing regulations. McLeish, while firmly on the otterine side of the debate, presents a nuanced overview of the issues, pointing out that otters should not get the blame for fisheries’ declining yields without also accounting for rising ocean temperatures, acidification, coastal development, and overharvesting.
Each section explores a different aspect of the life cycle of these fascinating creatures and a separate Pacific habitat. The author clearly explains the complicated science and computer algorithms underlying recent discoveries about how extensive and critical the otters’ role is in restoring healthy Pacific coastal zones. A description of an otter necropsy vividly shows how their health is damaged by parasites, pollution, and shellfish and algal biotoxins, and he warns that these animals are still threatened.
McLeish’s engaging and informative writing is punched up with snazzy black-and-white illustrations of marine life and a photo section of otters, at rest and play and (awwww!) holding hands. This book is an excellent introduction to marine biology and to a charismatic species and would be a welcome addition to any natural history library.
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