Algae, abalones, and otters: a tale 25 years in the making (cont.)

(page 2 of 3)

how the introduction of otters might affect community structure.
"Early on, there were a whole bunch of political ramifications…. Everybody was worried about the effect otters would have on shellfisheries. They thought, 'Oh my gosh, they're gonna come down and eat all the abalones and lobsters and all of these hard-working fishermen will be put out of work.'
"So Jim [Estes] and I were sitting around at San Nic [Island] and he was lamenting all the political things he was embroiled in…. And I remember that in the course of that discussion with Jim, I said, 'This is ridiculous because otters and abalones evolved together. If you look at the fossil record, otters appear at about the same time that all of our big California abalones appear. So how can having otters and abalones come back into contact be devastating for the abalone? They evolved together!'
"We talked about this [abalone and otters] from time to time over the next ten or twelve years…. And then Jim, through other work, was getting very interested in the role that kelp beds have in building communities in the north Pacific…. He recognized that abalones eat drift kelp [kelp that breaks off the main stalk and can float into crevices where abalones hide]. Otters keep urchins out of the communities and therefore enhance kelp beds by getting rid of herbivores [like urchins]. So having otters in the system produces more kelp, which means more food for the abalones.

  Sea otter

"Then in the early 90s…I got into abalone data…and I found out that it's different than you think. Most abalones are small. The ones in California are huge. Once I had all this data on size distribution, I went back to Jim and said, 'There’s more to it than just evolving together — they may have facilitated each other!'
"Another component came out of the blue. I had a postdoc here, Charlie Wray [co-author on the paper] in '96, and we were looking at interchanges between Chile and California using molecular data for the first time. While doing that, I told Charlie about this abalone idea. And Charlie said, 'Well get some tissue, and I'll sequence them and figure out their evolutionary relationships….' We found some contacts and started getting tissue. By the end of the program, Charlie had sequenced half of the living species of abalone.
"The last thing was that two workers down in Southern California published the complete fossil history of the abalone. So we ran down all the sizes of the fossil ones….

Back Front page Next