When southern sea otter pups get separated from their mothers in Monterey Bay, California, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Otter Program comes to the rescue. Their incredible surrogate program, in which stranded pups are cared for by the Aquarium’s resident sea otters, is essential for teaching pups “the skills they need to survive in the wild, like grooming and foraging.”
“When the pup is ready, our biologists release it into Elkhorn Slough—California’s largest tract of tidal salt marsh outside San Francisco Bay.”
Recent research has proven this process to be not only great for the growing pups but excellent for the coasts, as well. As ecosystem engineers, the fortified otter population is improving Elkhorn Slough, restoring eelgrass beds and keeping kelp forests in balance with sea urchins. From KQED Quest:
Fortunately, sea otters have an appetite for sea urchins and they help to keep sea urchins in check, allowing the kelp to flourish and capture CO2. When otters are present, urchins hide in crevices and snack on kelp scraps. The kelp can flourish, providing habitat for many ocean organisms. Sea otters play a small role in mitigating global climate change, but their impact points to a larger lesson: wildlife conservation can save vegetation needed to reduce CO2.
Related reading for grades 6 through 12 at National Geographic: Role of Keystone Species in an Ecosystem.