Environmental scientists at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said a thriving sea otter population can keep sea urchins in check, which will allow kelp forests to prosper. The kelp forests help absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Kelp, a favorite meal of ravenous sea urchins, is particularly efficient at sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, they said.
"Sea otters have a positive indirect effect on kelp biomass by preying on sea urchins, a kelp grazer," the researchers wrote in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.
In analyzing 40 years of data on otters and kelp bloom from Vancouver Island to the western edge of Alaska's Aleutian Islands, the researchers said they found otters "undoubtedly have a strong influence" on the cycle of CO2 storage.
Managing animal populations can affect ecosystems' abilities to sequester carbon, they said.
"Right now, all the climate change models and proposed methods of sequestering carbon ignore animals," Chris Wilmers, UC Santa Cruz professor of environmental studies, said. "But animals the world over, working in different ways to influence the carbon cycle, might actually have a large impact."
"If ecologists can get a better handle on what these impacts are, there might be opportunities for win-win conservation scenarios, whereby animal species are protected or enhanced, and carbon gets sequestered," he said.