Sea Urchins, Sea Otters, And Kelp
Sea urchins are marine invertebrates that feed voraciously on kelp biomass (they are herbivores meaning that plants are their primary source of food). Periodically, sea urchins of the genus Strongylocentrotus can become extremely abundant and cause an intense disturbance to the kelp-forest ecosystem. They do this by feeding on the holdfasts and causing the kelp to detach from their rocky anchors, resulting in an ecosystem known as an "urchin barren" because it sustains so little biomass of seaweeds or other species. This sort of natural ecological damage has been observed numerous times, in various parts of the world.
Off the coast of western North America, however, sea otters (Enhydra lutris) feed on the urchins and can prevent them from becoming too abundant, thereby keeping the kelp forests intact. This ecological balance among sea urchins, sea otters, and kelps became upset during the nineteenth century, when the populations of the otters were virtually wiped out by excessive hunting for the fur trade. Because of the collapse of otter populations, the urchins became more abundant. Their excessive feeding on kelps greatly reduced the extent and luxuriance of the kelp forests. Fortunately, this balance has since been restored by the cessation of the hunting of sea otters, allowing them to again control the abundance of the urchins. In turn, the productive kelp forests have been able to redevelop.
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