Category Archives: wildlife

The Sea Otter & Climate Change

Breakfast with a sea otter; Seward, Alaska

The sea otter is the largest of the weasel family; it is also the smallest marine mammal. Adult males average five feet in length and ninety pounds. Females are about the same length, but run about thirty pounds lighter.

Life span is between 15-20 years in the wild. Sexual maturity happens at 2-3 years for females, and 4-5 years for males. It should be noted, it may take several more years for a male to breed, until one holds a breeding territory. Breeding can happen at any time of the year, and young can be born during any and all seasons, but in Alaska, birth usually occurs in the spring. The female raises one pup per year.

In order to maintain body weight, a sea otter must eat 25% of its mass, every day. They have the densest fur of any mammal, with between 800,000 – 1 million hairs per square inch.

Sea otter range in Alaska

Alaska has three distinct populations of sea otter: The Southwest, South-central and Southeast. Alaska is home to 90% of the world sea otter population.

The Southeast and Southcentral population is stable, but the Southwestern population has been listed as threatened since 2005. This population, which runs from Kodiak Island west throughout the Aleutian Chain, has lost roughly 65% of its numbers since the 1980’s.

Kelp forest in the Aleutian Islands; Photo credit: UAF

Sea otters are considered a keystone species in the Alaska coastal environment. Now, they are proving to be the protectors of the underwater kelp forests. As the sea otter population plummeted in the Aleutians, the sea urchin population exploded. The sea otter is the number one predator of the sea urchin; sea otters will eat them like popcorn.

Sea urchins along an Aleutian reef, no kelp forest; Photo credit: UAF

The number one predator of the kelp forest, is the sea urchin. Without the sea otters to keep the sea urchin population under control, the urchins have decimated the kelp forest along the Aleutian Chain. Now, the sea urchins are destroying the reefs along the Chain. With the drop in kelp, the sea urchins are eating the algae that creates the reef. These reefs are disappearing right before researchers eyes.

The kelp forest are now gone from the central and western Aleutians. In their place are often 400 sea urchins per square meter. The loss of the kelp is huge on several fronts. It is a home and safety zone to numerous fish species, cod among them. The 1200 mile Aleutian Chain supports two multi-million dollar fisheries: Bristol Bay and the Bering Sea.

Kelp is also an extremely efficient absorber and holder of CO2. Like all land plants, kelp forests take CO2 out of the air during photosynthesis. Without kelp, the oceans lose a tool in lowering carbon in the atmosphere. Kelp forests also help reduce the force of storm surges, which Alaska is facing more and more.

According to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, there are several potential drivers for the western sea otter population drop. Overharvest, disease and predation. The new predator on the block in the Aleutians is the killer whale. Prior to 1991, there was not a documented case of an orca singling out sea otters for a food source. Now, it seems to be common. What changed? Something else changed in the diet of orcas that now makes the sea otter worthwhile. There are several theories, but no definitive answer.

Currently, sea otters are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Sources: University of Alaska – Fairbanks; Alaska Department of Fish & Game; Fairbanks Daily-News Miner; Alaska SeaLife Center; Ocean Conservancy.


Lidar on Bears

A 3D Scan of Katmai Bear #747

Prior to Fat Bear Week, researchers at Katmai National Park used Terrestrial Lidar Scanning Technology to determine the “volume” of Katmai’s voluptuous bears. #747 above, had over 27 scans of his belly alone. In the scan above, 747 was standing in shallow water.

747 going 3D

747 was the winner of Fat Bear Week, and he topped the Lidar scanning too, coming in at 22.6 cubic feet. Chunk was the second largest bear scanned at 19.78 cubic feet. Walker came in third at 17.7 cubic feet.

Fascinating that the technology is being used on Alaska’s wildlife.

Images courtesy of Katmai National Park


It’s Bat Week

Credit: National Park Service

Believe it or not, Alaska has seven species of bat. The Little Brown Bat (Myotis lucifugus) is the most common. At only 3 to 4-1/2″ long, and a wingspan of 8-9″, the Little Brown Bat, lives up to its name.

Bats are not well studied in Alaska. Even the lifespan of the Little Brown Bat in the state is unknown, although they seem to average 10 years or so in the Yukon. One elderly Yukon Little Brown Bat was known to live 34 years.

Range of the Little Brown Bat

They range from the Yukon River south throughout Alaska. The total population is not known, although it is not thought to be large, considering the territory. I have seen bats sweep overhead at the darkest time of our summer days, but I can not say that it is a common experience. We certainly have the mosquitos to keep them well fed, however.

A Little Brown Bat

Bats usually hibernate from September until May, although it is not a continual hibernation. They seem to wake up on warmer days to hunt, then return to hibernation. They will roost in caves, but these are not common in Alaska’s Interior. Natural weather-protected areas will offer a place to roost, as will attics and out buildings. So the scratching one hears from the attic isn’t always a red squirrel in Alaska, but might be a Little Brown Bat.


Moose joins soccer match in Homer

A moose jumped a fence to join in on a pick up soccer match in Homer, Alaska. The moose appears to be a bit of a ball hog, but I was disappointed when the other players chose not to pass the ball back to the moose. I wouldn’t have been able to resist.

Another view, complete with commentary

Welcome to Alaska, Gunner.


My neighbor with lakefront property

Film Friday:

The Beaver in warmer days

Camera: Minolta SRT201; Film: Kodak 35mm, Tri-X400


Beaver Lodge

The beaver lodge and pantry

The lodge has grown some since last year, and this year’s collection of birch, aspen and willow branches is larger than the previous year. As far as I know, there are still three beavers in the lodge, although I have not seen the kit in several months.

The beavers really kick into food gathering gear in September. From that time on, there is seldom any time of the day, when one, if not both beavers, are collecting trees and branches. It becomes an evening event, to watch the large rodents swim across The Pond, with the tree branches in tow. When they reach their food pile, they dive underneath the pile, trapping the freshly collected branches at the bottom of the pile. The Pond and its ice will soon become a giant tupperware container.

One of many beaver trails

The beavers have branched out, going further and further from the lodge to collect saplings. The yard, and I use that term loosely, was fenced when they first showed up. The beavers have now worked their way to the very edge of that fencing. For now, there is a reprieve. The Pond has iced over, and the beavers will cut back on their tree cutting. The ice should now be in place until spring, and the beavers will spend most of their time in the lodge, venturing out under water to their pantry for meals.


Seven-Four-Seven

Katmai Bear #747; Photo credit: Katmai Bear Cams

The winner of Katmai’s Fat Bear Week, is Bear #747. The bear that shares a number with a wide-body jet airplane, is the champion of 2020.

747 first appeared on the Brooks River scene in 2004. At that time, the young, male bruin could not maintain prime fishing spots against the other bears. That is no longer the case.

747 is now one of the most dominate bears at Brooks Falls, and he is a talented catcher of salmon. He is not the most aggressive of the bears, but 747 does not have to be. Most bears get out of his way just because of his size. In 2019, 747 was estimated to weigh 1400 pounds. He has attained that weight, if not more, in 2020.

In full disclosure: 747 was my personal favorite for this year’s Fat Bear Week. No attempt was made to influence voters.


Fat Bear Tuesday

The Fat Bear Title is on the line:

The Bracket

There will not be a repeat winner this year in Katmai. Last year’s champ, Holly, lost to eventual finalist Chunk.

Voting starts at 8am ADT on Tuesday for the title. “Wide Body” 747 takes on “Chunk”, Bear #32.

747: Before & after pics

The amount of weight these brown bears put on over the course of the summer is really astounding. The bears enter a state of hyperphagia, which suppresses leptin, which is the chemical in the bears’ body that tells the animal that it is full.

Bears often eat dozens of sockeye salmon at a time, although one especially motivated bear was documented eating 40 salmon in one sitting! Each salmon brings in around 4000 calories.

Chunk: Before & after pics

A bear fishing Brooks River in Katmai can easily gain four pounds a day eating salmon, sedge grasses and berries. As salmon numbers tail off in September, the bears will start to move away from the river and dine elsewhere. Although, stragglers will remain around the Brooks River & Brooks Falls through the month of October.

Head over to explore.org to vote:

https://explore.org/fat-bear-week?fbclid=IwAR3Bigm7fJl9pbH-oTYmA2UCFj8h20bL_RAG9mPH4pW3NHY8oojqFNtU4h8

Bracket and photos courtesy of Katmai National Park


Fat Bear Week 2020

The Bracket

The bracket for Fat Bear Week has dropped. Voting starts tomorrow, September 30. Four bruins have earned a first round bye: Fan favorite Otis; “Wide-Body” 747; last year’s champion, Holly; and Grazer,Bear #128.

This year, Katmai National Park has a new, secure, tamper-proof, website for voting. Each day, voting will end at 6pm ADT.

To vote for the fattest bear on the Brooks River, head over to this site:

http://explore.org/fat-bear-week


Calorie Counting in Katmai

The countdown to Fat Bear Week has begun. The annual chubathon in Katmai National Park between the Park’s largest bears is just around the corner.

Will Holly retain her title as the bulkiest of Katmai? The brackets will begin at the end of the month.