The rise of an apex predator following deglaciation

Diversity and Distributions
By:  and 




Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) are an apex predator of the nearshore marine community and nearly went extinct at the turn of the 20th century. Reintroductions and legal protection allowed sea otters to re‐colonize much of their former range. Our objective was to chronicle the colonization of this apex predator in Glacier Bay, Alaska, to help understand the mechanisms that governed their successful colonization.


Glacier Bay is a tidewater glacier fjord in southeastern Alaska that was entirely covered by glaciers in the mid‐18th century. Since then, it has endured the fastest tidewater glacier retreat in recorded history.


We collected and analysed several data sets, spanning 20 years, to document the spatio‐temporal dynamics of an apex predator expanding into an area where they were formerly absent. We used novel quantitative tools to model the occupancy, abundance and colonization dynamics of sea otters, while accounting for uncertainty in the data collection process, the ecological process and model parameters.


Twenty years after sea otters were first observed colonizing Glacier Bay, they became one of the most abundant and widely distributed marine mammal. The population grew exponentially at a rate of 20% per year. They colonized Glacier Bay at a maximum rate of 6 km per year, with faster colonization rates occurring early in the colonization process. During colonization, sea otters selected shallow areas, close to shore, with a steep bottom slope, and a relatively simple shoreline complexity index.

Main conclusions

The growth and expansion of sea otters in Glacier Bay demonstrate how legal protection and translocation of apex predators can facilitate their successful establishment into a community in which they were formerly absent. The success of sea otters was, in part, a consequence of habitat that was left largely unperturbed by humans for the past 250 years. Further, sea otters and other marine predators, whose distribution is limited by ice, have the potential to expand in distribution and abundance, reshaping future marine communities in the wake of deglaciation and global loss of sea ice.

Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title The rise of an apex predator following deglaciation
Series title Diversity and Distributions
DOI 10.1111/ddi.12908
Volume 25
Issue 6
Year Published 2019
Language English
Publisher Wiley
Contributing office(s) Alaska Science Center Biology MFEB, Fort Collins Science Center
Description 14 p.
First page 895
Last page 908
Country United States
State Alaska
Other Geospatial Glacier Bay
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