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The otter side of paradise

Abbey Bigler, Staff Writer

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Have you ever met someone who has scuba dived off the Alaskan Aleutian Islands to study sea otters? Neither have I, but thanks to West Chester University’s biology department we have an opportunity to do just that.

On Tuesday, March 20, the biology department will host a talk by Dr. James Estes, a professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. The talk, titled “Why Predators Matter: The Ecological Legacy of Sea Otters and Other Charismatic Species,” will begin at 7:30 p.m. in Schmucker Science Center Link room 151. It is open to the public and all West Chester University students, faculty and staff are welcome to attend. Light refreshments will be served prior to the talk.

Before becoming a full-time professor at UCSC, Dr. Estes worked with the wildlife division of the United States Geological Survey. It was during this time that he studied sea otters off the coast of the Aleutian Islands. He undertook this research because he saw sea otters as a keystone species, a species essential to keeping their ecosystem in balance. Sea otters eat sea urchins, which feed on kelp. If the sea otter population decreases, the sea urchin population increases and begins to consume too much kelp. Kelp forests protect the shoreline and act as nurseries for fish, so if the kelp forests are destroyed, fish cannot take shelter in them and their populations decrease.

Among other things, this can create a problem for humans since we harvest a significant number of fish from the area around the Aleutian Islands. Dr. Estes also investigated why populations of sea otters were disappearing in particular areas of the Aleutians and how their disappearance might be related to killer whales and declining numbers of other marine mammals including whales, sea lions and porpoises.

Recently, Dr. Estes published a book titled “Serendipity” on his experience conducting this research on sea otters. The book is a mixture of memoir and science, written not just for scientists but for anyone interested in learning a little more about sea otters, ecosystems and ecological research. His talk at WCU will also be geared toward non-scientists.

According to Dr. Frank Fish, a professor of biology at WCU and the organizer of the event, Dr. Estes’ talk is the latest in a series that have been planned by WCU’s marine sciences program. The aim of the talks is to bring in speakers who have written books about their work for non-scientists to help both students and the public see what really goes into conducting ecological research. Previous speakers include Dr. Terrie Williams, another professor at UCSC in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology who studied dolphins and Antarctic seals, and Dr. James Spotila, a professor at Drexel University in the department of biodiversity, earth and environmental science who studied sea turtles.

When asked what benefits he sees these talks bringing to WCU and the West Chester community, Dr. Fish replied, “In general, science has come under attack recently, politically. We have to see how the scientists, who are very dedicated people, go out and collect this information and that this information has real value in telling us about the state of affairs in our environment.”

Abbey Bigler is a fourth-year student majoring in English with minors in business and technical writing, communications studies and biology. ✉ [email protected].

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The otter side of paradise