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Concept: Sea otter


Nodal and BMP signals are important for establishing left-right (LR) asymmetry in vertebrates. In sea urchins, Nodal signaling prevents the formation of the rudiment on the right side. However, the opposing pathway to Nodal signaling during LR axis establishment is not clear. Here, we revealed that BMP signaling is activated in the left coelomic pouch, specifically in the veg2 lineage, but not in the small micromeres. By perturbing BMP activities, we demonstrated that BMP signaling is required for activating the expression of the left-sided genes and the formation of the left-sided structures. On the other hand, Nodal signals on the right side inhibit BMP signaling and control LR asymmetric separation and apoptosis of the small micromeres. Our findings show that BMP signaling is the positive signal for left-sided development in sea urchins, suggesting that the opposing roles of Nodal and BMP signals in establishing LR asymmetry are conserved in deuterostomes.

Concepts: Animal, Right-wing politics, Sea otter, Political spectrum, Signal, Left-wing politics, Urchin, Sea urchin


At 50 kg in estimated weight, the extinct Siamogale melilutra is larger than all living otters, and ranks among the largest fossil otters. The biomechanical capability of S. melilutra jaws as related to their large size is unknown but crucial to reconstructing the species' potentially unique ecological niche. Here we compare the mandibular biomechanics of S. melilutra using engineering-based performance measures against ten extant otter biomechanical models. Despite a wide range of feeding preferences from durophagy to piscivory, living otter species exhibit a linear relationship between mandible stiffness and volume, as expected in isometric model scaling. In contrast, S. melilutra models exhibit a six-fold increase in stiffness from expected stiffness-volume relationships calculated from extant species models. Unlike stiffness, mechanical efficiency of biting is conserved among living otters and in S. melilutra. These findings indicate that although similar to living bunodont otters in morphology and biting efficiency, jaw strength in S. melilutra far surpasses molluscivores such as sea otters and Cape clawless otters, even after accounting for size. Therefore, Siamogale represents a feeding ecomorphology with no living analog, and its giant size and high mandibular strength confer shell-crushing capability matched only by other extinct molluscivores such as the marine bear Kolponomos.

Concepts: Extant taxon, Extinction, Biomechanics, Aonyx, Mustelidae, Otters, Sea otter, Otter


Skulls (n = 1,205) of southern sea otters were examined macroscopically according to defined criteria. The museum specimens, acquired from strandings, varied in age from juvenile to adult, with an equal sex distribution. The results from all young adult and adult specimens were pooled according to tooth type. Ninety-two percent of teeth were available for examination, with 6.5% artifactually absent, 0.6% deemed absent due to acquired tooth loss and 0.03% deemed congenitally absent. All teeth were normal in morphology, except for three pairs of fused teeth, including two instances of fused maxillary first incisor teeth. Supernumerary teeth were associated with 97 normal teeth (most commonly maxillary canine teeth) in 68 specimens. At least one persistent deciduous tooth was present in six skulls, two of which were from adults. The majority (94.6%) of alveoli, either with or without teeth, were not associated with bony changes consistent with periodontitis; however, the majority (74.4%) of specimens did have at least one tooth associated with mild periodontitis. The mesial root of the mandibular third premolar tooth was the most common location at which periodontal hard tissue lesions were observed (56.6%). Ten sea otters had lesions consistent with focal enamel hypoplasia. Approximately half of the teeth (52.0%) were abraded; almost all adult specimens (98.1%) contained at least one abraded tooth, while fewer young adults were affected (76.4%). Tooth fractures were uncommon, affecting 1,343 teeth (4.5%). Periapical lesions were associated with 409 teeth (1.3%) in a total of 176 specimens, and these would likely have caused considerable morbidity while the animals were alive.

Concepts: Maxillary lateral incisor, Tooth development, Sea otter, Deciduous teeth, Incisor, Premolar, Canine tooth, Teeth


Failure to account for interactions between endangered species may lead to unexpected population dynamics, inefficient management strategies, waste of scarce resources, and, at worst, increased extinction risk. The importance of species interactions is undisputed, yet recovery targets generally do not account for such interactions. This shortcoming is a consequence of species-centered legislation, but also of uncertainty surrounding the dynamics of species interactions and the complexity of modeling such interactions. The northern sea otter (Enhydra lutris kenyoni) and one of its preferred prey, northern abalone (Haliotis kamtschatkana), are endangered species for which recovery strategies have been developed without consideration of their strong predator-prey interactions. Using simulation-based optimization procedures from artificial intelligence, namely reinforcement learning and stochastic dynamic programming, we combined sea otter and northern abalone population models with functional-response models and examined how different management actions affect population dynamics and the likelihood of achieving recovery targets for each species through time. Recovery targets for these interacting species were difficult to achieve simultaneously in the absence of management. Although sea otters were predicted to recover, achieving abalone recovery targets failed even when threats to abalone such as predation and poaching were reduced. A management strategy entailing a 50% reduction in the poaching of northern abalone was a minimum requirement to reach short-term recovery goals for northern abalone when sea otters were present. Removing sea otters had a marginally positive effect on the abalone population but only when we assumed a functional response with strong predation pressure. Our optimization method could be applied more generally to any interacting threatened or invasive species for which there are multiple conservation objectives. Definición de Metas de Recuperación Realistas para Dos Especies en Peligro Interactuantes, Enhydra lutris y Haliotis kamtschatkana.

Concepts: Extinction, Lotka–Volterra equation, Endangered species, Biodiversity Action Plan, Mustelidae, Predation, Otter, Sea otter


Echinoids, or sea urchins, are rare in the Palaeozoic fossil record, and thus the details regarding the early diversification of crown group echinoids are unclear. Here we report on the earliest probable crown group echinoid from the fossil record, recovered from Permian (Roadian-Capitanian) rocks of west Texas, which has important implications for the timing of the divergence of crown group echinoids. The presence of apophyses and rigidly sutured interambulacral areas with two columns of plates indicates this species is a cidaroid echinoid. The species, Eotiaris guadalupensis, n. sp. is therefore the earliest stem group cidaroid. The occurrence of this species in Roadian strata pushes back the divergence of cidaroids and euechinoids, the clades that comprise all living echinoids, to at least 268.8 Ma, ten million years older than the previously oldest known cidaroid. Furthermore, the genomic regulation of development in echinoids is amongst the best known, and this new species informs the timing of large-scale reorganization in echinoid gene regulatory networks that occurred at the cidaroid-euechinoid divergence, indicating that these changes took place by the Roadian stage of the Permian.

Concepts: DNA, Clade, Sea otter, Crown group, Evolution, Urchin, Phylogenetics, Sea urchin


The late Pleistocene extinction of so many large-bodied vertebrates has been variously attributed to two general causes: rapid climate change and the effects of humans as they spread from the Old World to previously uninhabited continents and islands. Many large-bodied vertebrates, especially large apex predators, maintain their associated ecosystems through top-down forcing processes, especially trophic cascades, and megaherbivores also exert an array of strong indirect effects on their communities. Thus, a third possibility for at least some of the Pleistocene extinctions is that they occurred through habitat changes resulting from the loss of these other keystone species. Here we explore the plausibility of this mechanism, using information on sea otters, kelp forests, and the recent extinction of Steller’s sea cows from the Commander Islands. Large numbers of sea cows occurred in the Commander Islands at the time of their discovery by Europeans in 1741. Although extinction of these last remaining sea cows during early years of the Pacific maritime fur trade is widely thought to be a consequence of direct human overkill, we show that it is also a probable consequence of the loss of sea otters and the co-occurring loss of kelp, even if not a single sea cow had been killed directly by humans. This example supports the hypothesis that the directly caused extinctions of a few large vertebrates in the late Pleistocene may have resulted in the coextinction of numerous other species.

Concepts: Sirenia, Keystone species, Megafauna, Sea otter, Mammal, Pleistocene, Apex predator, Human


Arctic marine mammals (AMMs) are icons of climate change, largely because of their close association with sea ice. However, neither a circumpolar assessment of AMM status nor a standardized metric of sea ice habitat change is available. We summarized available data on abundance and trend for each AMM species and recognized subpopulation. We also examined species diversity, the extent of human use, and temporal trends in sea ice habitat for 12 regions of the Arctic by calculating the dates of spring sea ice retreat and fall sea ice advance from satellite data (1979-2013). Estimates of AMM abundance varied greatly in quality, and few studies were long enough for trend analysis. Of the AMM subpopulations, 78% (61 of 78) are legally harvested for subsistence purposes. Changes in sea ice phenology have been profound. In all regions except the Bering Sea, the duration of the summer (i.e., reduced ice) period increased by 5-10 weeks and by >20 weeks in the Barents Sea between 1979 and 2013. In light of generally poor data, the importance of human use, and forecasted environmental changes in the 21st century, we recommend the following for effective AMM conservation: maintain and improve comanagement by local, federal, and international partners; recognize spatial and temporal variability in AMM subpopulation response to climate change; implement monitoring programs with clear goals; mitigate cumulative impacts of increased human activity; and recognize the limits of current protected species legislation.

Concepts: Sea otter, Bering Strait, Species, Climate, Norway, 21st century, Arctic Ocean, Polar bear


Recent research on ocean health has found large predator abundance to be a key element of ocean condition. Fisheries can impact large predator abundance directly through targeted capture and indirectly through incidental capture of nontarget species or bycatch. However, measures of the global nature of bycatch are lacking for air-breathing megafauna. We fill this knowledge gap and present a synoptic global assessment of the distribution and intensity of bycatch of seabirds, marine mammals, and sea turtles based on empirical data from the three most commonly used types of fishing gears worldwide. We identify taxa-specific hotspots of bycatch intensity and find evidence of cumulative impacts across fishing fleets and gears. This global map of bycatch illustrates where data are particularly scarce-in coastal and small-scale fisheries and ocean regions that support developed industrial fisheries and millions of small-scale fishers-and identifies fishing areas where, given the evidence of cumulative hotspots across gear and taxa, traditional species or gear-specific bycatch management and mitigation efforts may be necessary but not sufficient. Given the global distribution of bycatch and the mitigation success achieved by some fleets, the reduction of air-breathing megafauna bycatch is both an urgent and achievable conservation priority.

Concepts: Green turtle, Sea otter, Marine debris, Ocean, Sea turtle, Whale, Bycatch, Reptile


The northern sea otter inhabits coastal waters of the northern Pacific Ocean and is the largest member of the Mustelidae family. DNA sequencing methods that utilize microfluidic partitioned and non-partitioned library construction were used to establish the sea otter genome. The final assembly provided 2.426 Gbp of highly contiguous assembled genomic sequences with a scaffold N50 length of over 38 Mbp. We generated transcriptome data derived from a lymphoma to aid in the determination of functional elements. The assembled genome sequence and underlying sequence data are available at the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) under the BioProject accession number PRJNA388419.

Concepts: DNA, Genome, Otter, Sequence, Human Genome Project, Mustelidae, Pacific Ocean, Sea otter


Variation in terrestrial mammalian skull morphology is known to constrain feeding performance, which in turn influences dietary habits and ultimately fitness. Among mustelids, otters have evolved two feeding specializations: underwater raptorial capture of prey (mouth-oriented) and capture of prey by hand (hand-oriented), both of which have likely associations with morphology and bite performance. However, feeding biomechanics and performance data for otters are sparse. The first goal of this study was to investigate the relationships between feeding morphology and bite performance among two mouth-oriented piscivores (Pteronura brasiliensis and Lontra canadensis) and two hand-oriented invertebrate specialists (Enhydra lutris and Aonyx cinerea). Since other vertebrate taxa that are mouth-oriented piscivores tend to possess longer skulls and mandibles, with jaws designed for increased velocity at the expense of biting capability, we hypothesized that mouth-oriented otters would also possess long, narrow skulls indicative of high velocity jaws. Conversely, hand-oriented otters were expected to possess short, blunt skulls with adaptations to increase bite force and crushing capability. Concomitant with these skull shapes we hypothesized that sea otters would possess a greater mandibular bluntness index, providing for a greater mechanical advantage compared to other otter species investigated. A second goal was to examine morphological variation at a finer scale by assessing variation in cranial morphology among three sea otter subspecies. Since diet varies among these subspecies, and their populations are isolated, we hypothesized that the magnitude of mandibular bluntness and concomitant mechanical advantage, as well as occlusal surface area would also vary within species according to their primary food source (fish versus hard invertebrates). Functional expectations were met for comparisons among and within species. Among species the phylogeny suggests a deeply rooted transition to alternative foraging types. Yet within foraging types alternative species were also strongly variable, suggesting either selective differences in the extent or nature of realized foraging mode, or an accumulation of non-adaptive changes during the long independent evolutionary history. At the finest scale, variation among subspecies indicates that trophic adaptation occurred rapidly, making it interesting that we happened to find both deeply and shallowly-rooted transformations associated with diet type in otter species and subspecies.

Concepts: Evolution, Species, Aonyx, Lontra, Otters, Sea otter, Otter, Mustelidae