Harlequin Ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus) Scavenge Sea Urchin Fragments from Foraging Sea Otters (Enhydra lutris)


  • Erin Rechsteiner
  • Angeleen Olson




Sea Otters, Enhydra lutris, sea ducks, Harlequin Ducks, Histrionicus histrionicus, Red Sea Urchins, Mesocentrotus franciscanus, prey subsidies, prey availability, wintering habitat, nearshore ecology, British Columbia


Foraging animals may risk association with potential predators to obtain otherwise inaccessible prey. We observed this strategy in wintering Harlequin Ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus) scavenging fragments of Red Sea Urchins (Mesocentrotus franciscanus) from foraging Sea Otters (Enhydra lutris) that were re-occupying an area from which they had been ecologically absent since about 1850. Harlequin Ducks, like other sea ducks, have not previously been reported scavenging from other birds or mammals. In British columbia, Red Sea Urchins have reached large sizes and densities since the removal of Sea Otter predators by the marine fur trade in the 18th and 19th centuries. Observations of Sea Otters and Harlequin Ducks were made in 4 areas, spanning a time gradient of Sea Otter occupation from 1 to 5 years. During 3 months of observations (December 2013 – February 2014), Harlequin Ducks were associated with foraging Sea Otters only at sites that were recently occupied by Sea Otters (≤ 2 months), where the proportion of urchins in Sea Otter diets was highest and where the ducks acquired urchin fragments from foraging Sea Otters. We suggest that Sea Otters re-occupying their historic range and consuming predominantly large Red Sea Urchins provide a temporarily available prey subsidy for Harlequin Ducks. Our observations document a novel effect of Sea Otters providing important prey supplementation to a marine bird when foraging in urchin-rich habitats, contributing to the overall role of Sea Otters as a keystone species.