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Surrogate rearing a keystone species to enhance population and ecosystem restoration

  • Karl A. Mayer (a1), M. Tim Tinker (a2), Teri E. Nicholson (a1), Michael J. Murray (a1), Andrew B. Johnson (a1), Michelle M. Staedler (a1), Jessica A. Fujii (a1) and Kyle S. Van Houtan (a1)...


Translocation and rehabilitation programmes are critical tools for wildlife conservation. These methods achieve greater impact when integrated in a combined strategy for enhancing population or ecosystem restoration. During 2002–2016 we reared 37 orphaned southern sea otter Enhydra lutris nereis pups, using captive sea otters as surrogate mothers, then released them into a degraded coastal estuary. As a keystone species, observed increases in the local sea otter population unsurprisingly brought many ecosystem benefits. The role that surrogate-reared otters played in this success story, however, remained uncertain. To resolve this, we developed an individual-based model of the local population using surveyed individual fates (survival and reproduction) of surrogate-reared and wild-captured otters, and modelled estimates of immigration. Estimates derived from a decade of population monitoring indicated that surrogate-reared and wild sea otters had similar reproductive and survival rates. This was true for males and females, across all ages (1–13 years) and locations evaluated. The model simulations indicated that reconstructed counts of the wild population are best explained by surrogate-reared otters combined with low levels of unassisted immigration. In addition, the model shows that 55% of observed population growth over this period is attributable to surrogate-reared otters and their wild progeny. Together, our results indicate that the integration of surrogacy methods and reintroduction of juvenile sea otters helped establish a biologically successful population and restore a once-impaired ecosystem.

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Corresponding author

(Corresponding author)


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Also at: Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, Durham, USA

Also at: U.S. Geological Survey, Western Ecological Research Center, Santa Cruz, USA

Supplementary material for this article is available at



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