The surprising way sea otters enhance ecosystems, and more scientific breakthroughs

Sea otters boost sea grasses, blue blossoms rule, and an ancient hyena bone may hold clues to the origins of counting.

Snug in the animal kingdom’s thickest fur, sea otters can live their whole lives in the ocean, feeding heavily upon seafloor animals. In British Columbia they often dig clams out of fields of eelgrass (Zostera marina), leaving divots in otherwise dense mats of the aquatic vegetation. In meadows that otters inhabit compared with those they don’t, the eelgrasses are more genetically diverse and the plants more resilient, according to a study published in the journal Science. That’s because by foraging and disturbing the seabed, otters prompt the plants to flower and produce seeds, and their digging provides more space and sunlight for seeds to settle and germinate. Seagrasses such as eelgrass are imperiled as a result of warming and pollution; they’re vital to ecosystems because they filter contaminants from the water, store carbon, and provide habitat and food for many animals. The study’s finding is a powerful example of how predators often influence their ecosystems in unseen and little-known ways, says lead researcher Erin Foster. Douglas Main

(Read more about how sea otters help protect underwater meadows.)

A review of 280 Alpine regional plant studies over 45 years shows that blue flowers got the most attention; yellow, white, or red/pink the next most, and green/brown blooms much less. Also popular: tall flowers (so scientists don’t have to stoop?). The research bias has implications for which flowers get protection. —Lori Cuthbert

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