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Physical disturbance by recovering sea otter populations increases eelgrass genetic diversity
Science  (IF47.728),  Pub Date : 2021-10-15, DOI: 10.1126/science.abf2343
Erin Foster, Jane Watson, Matthew A. Lemay, M. Tim Tinker, James A. Estes, Rebecca Piercey, Lauren Henson, Carol Ritland, Allyson Miscampbell, Linda Nichol, Margot Hessing-Lewis, Anne K. Salomon, Chris T. Darimont

Most knowledge regarding the role of predators is ecological in nature. Here, we report how disturbance generated by sea otters (Enhydra lutris) digging for infaunal prey in eelgrass (Zostera marina) meadows increases genetic diversity by promoting conditions for sexual reproduction of plants. Eelgrass allelic richness and genotypic diversity were, respectively, 30 and 6% higher in areas where recovering sea otter populations had been established for 20 to 30 years than in areas where they had been present <10 years or absent >100 years. The influence of sea otter occupancy on the aforementioned measures of genetic diversity was stronger than those of depth, temperature, latitude, or meadow size. Our findings reveal an underappreciated evolutionary process by which megafauna may promote genetic diversity and ecological resilience.