Density dependence and risk of extinction in a small population of sea otters

Leah Gerber, Kate E. Buenau, Glenn Vanblaricom

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Sea otters (Enhydra lutris (L.)) were hunted to extinction off the coast of Washington State early in the 20th century. A new population was established by translocations from Alaska in 1969 and 1970. The population, currently numbering at least 550 animals, A major threat to the population is the ongoing risk of majour oil spills in sea otter habitat. We apply population models to census and demographic data in order to evaluate the status of the population. We fit several density dependent models to test for density dependence and determine plausible values for the carrying capacity (K) by comparing model goodness of fit to an exponential model. Model fits were compared using Akaike Information Criterion (AIC). A significant negative relationship was found between the population growth rate and population size (r 2=0.27, F=5.57, df=16, p<0.05), suggesting density dependence in Washington state sea otters. Information criterion statistics suggest that the model is the most parsimonious, followed closely by the logistic Beverton-Holt model. Values of K ranged from 612 to 759 with best-fit parameter estimates for the Beverton-Holt model including 0.26 for r and 612 for K. The latest (2001) population index count (555) puts the population at 87-92% of the estimated carrying capacity, above the suggested range for optimum sustainable population (OSP). Elasticity analysis was conducted to examine the effects of proportional changes in vital rates on the population growth rate (λ). The elasticity values indicate the population is most sensitive to changes in survival rates (particularly adult survival).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2741-2757
Number of pages17
JournalBiodiversity and Conservation
Issue number14
StatePublished - Dec 2004


  • Akaike information criteria
  • Demography
  • Density dependence
  • Diffusion approximation
  • Extinction risk
  • Oil spill
  • Sea otter

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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