The Mystery of the Vanishing Sea Otter

Monday, Aug 16, 2010  |  Updated 11:30 AM PDT
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With over 14 million views, that YouTube video of otters holding hands may be the sweetest thing ever. But what of their wild cousins?

New research indicates that sea otter numbers are plummeting -- and what's worse, nobody's sure why. Not only is the population dropping, with 2,711 counted this year, but new births are down a troubling 11 percent.

Is it climate change? A predator? Pollution? Dwindling food? Probably a combination of all of those factors.

This isn't the beginning of tough times for the cuddly creatures. Their soft fur made them a target for trappers, and they were thought to be extinct for part of the 20th century. Since then, their numbers have bounced back somewhat; but the recent trend suggests another decline.

"This species is an emblem for California. It is the canary in the coal mine for the marine ecosystem," a sea otter specialist told the San Francisco Chronicle. "We certainly don't want to lose them on our watch."

Another problem is the Sea Otter Fund, dedicated to studying and bolstering their numbers, is running low this year. Taxpayers can donate by checking off a box when they file their taxes, but so far donations are low. Unless a boatload of cash comes their way soon, the Sea Otter Fund may lose an important funding source for next year.

So if you've already filed your taxes and still want to donate, Defenders of Wildlife could always use a helping hand.

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