Sea otters, kelp forests, and the extinction of Steller’s sea cow
Estes et al
The late Pleistocene extinction of so many large-bodied vertebrates has been variously attributed to two general causes: rapid climate change and the effects of humans as they spread from the Old World to previously uninhabited continents and islands. Many large-bodied vertebrates, especially large apex predators, maintain their associated ecosystems through top-down forcing processes, especially trophic cascades, and megaherbivores also exert an array of strong indirect effects on their communities. Thus, a third possibility for at least some of the Pleistocene extinctions is that they occurred through habitat changes resulting from the loss of these other keystone species. Here we explore the plausibility of this mechanism, using information on sea otters, kelp forests, and the recent extinction of Steller's sea cows from the Commander Islands. Large numbers of sea cows occurred in the Commander Islands at the time of their discovery by Europeans in 1741. Although extinction of these last remaining sea cows during early years of the Pacific maritime fur trade is widely thought to be a consequence of direct human overkill, we show that it is also a probable consequence of the loss of sea otters and the co-occurring loss of kelp, even if not a single sea cow had been killed directly by humans. This example supports the hypothesis that the directly caused extinctions of a few large vertebrates in the late Pleistocene may have resulted in the coextinction of numerous other species.