Friday, April 10, 2015

A Sea Lion Story

By now it's probably come across your computer screen at least once. The story may have even shown up in your physical paper. More than 1,800 California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) pups have shown up emaciated on the beaches of California since January. Unusual mortality events like this are most troubling to us because it's adorable baby animals that are suffering, so it's a good opportunity to draw awareness to ecosystem scale issues.

D'aww who's a good vector for a better understanding
 of ecology!? You are, yes you are!
Courtesy: Jaina via Flickr

So what do baby sea lions have to do with the ecosystem as a whole? Well ecosystems are all the living and non-living things in an area that interact with one another. This means that every piece in an ecosystem is significant to the others in some way. For example small fish are important to large predators, currents are important to plankton, and temperature is important to everyone. Each piece has direct effects on the others and those effects themselves interact.

On the surface (pun intended) starving sea lion pups seems to have a pretty straightforward cause. You would assume it's because there isn't enough of whatever it is sea lions eat. That's part of the story, but there's more to it. When baby seals and sea lions are first born they lack the thick blubber of their parents. Pups have to drink extremely rich milk to bulk up enough to survive on their own. California sea lion milk averages about 35% fat, that's about the same fat content as whipping cream, and about ten times the fat content of whole milk. Not only does the thick layer of blubber the pups develop help keep them warm it's important as an energy reserve when they first strike out on their own.

Despite what this sea lion seems to be telling you, Cronuts are not 
a viable source of energy reserves.
Courtesy: Makitani via Flickr

The most important prey for lactating mothers are anchovy, sardine, and hake. These fish live in large schools, so they're usually plentiful and they have extremely oily flesh; perfect producing rich milk. In the past there were very large fisheries for these species off of California. Think Cannery Row on Monterey Bay. However, we aren't taking too much of the sea lions' food away anymore because canned, oily fish have declined in popularity.

I can't imagine why...
Courtesy: via Flickr

 What's happened is that for the last few years the waters around the Channel Islands, where the sea lions give birth, have been abnormally warm. Each of the fish the sea lions rely on are cold water species, in fact North Pacific anchovy won't go into water warmer than 62 degrees F. Since California's seas have been so warm the food fish have shifted themselves to colder waters. Sardines have been spawning farther offshore and other fish schools have moved north. These migrations have forced mother sea lions to hunt farther afield, and when their moms don't come back for extended periods of time, the pups set out on their own too early.

So where are the dad's in all this? Why don't we see adult males stranding in California? Well they're not there. Male and female sea lions both take on long migrations from British Columbia to California and back every year, but they have different schedules. Females head down to the breeding grounds first to give birth. Then males head down to meet up with the females once they're ready to mate again; about three weeks later. Being further north for longer has actually lead to boom times for male sea lions. At the mouth of the Columbia river between Washington State and Oregon more than ten times the usual number of males have been hanging out. They came in for this year's copious smelt run and are fattening up to make the trip south to the rookeries. Males need a lot of mass and energy reserves to defend territories on beaches which they won't leave and thus don't eat for several weeks.

   "I'll calm when I haven't gone twelve days without food!"
Courtesy: Bridget Samuels via Flickr

So that's the story. Warm water pooling at the surface has pushed forage fish away from the Channel Islands. This means that female California sea lions have to travel farther to find food that makes rich enough milk for their babies. These longer trips mean that many young are leaving the rookeries too early, and are washing up along the shore. All the while, farther north, males are enjoying a greater supply of food than ever. The biological needs of its inhabitants, and the physical characteristics of the ocean come together to tell the complex story of an ecosystem as long as a continent. We're able to discover the changes happening in the environment thanks to this single species.

Scientists aren't sure if the warming is caused by the changes happening to the global climate system, or if this is part of natural variations of the Pacific. Either way marine mammal stranding networks will need support in the near future. If you want to help one of the best things you can do is to remain informed about who's best prepared to help hungry or sick sea lion pups. There's a good list of organizations to contact and a lot of information here.


"California Sea Lion (Zalophus Californianus)", NOAA Fisheries: Office of Protected Resources. Accessed via:

Bernton, Hal, "Boom Times on the Columbia for California Sea Lions", The Seattle Times, March 27th, 2015, Accessed via:

"2013-2015 California Sea Lion Unusual Mortality Event in California", National Marine Fisheries Service Health and Stranding Reports,
Accessed via:

Redman, Marianne, "The Pinnipeds: Seals, Sea Lions, and Walruses", pg 282, University of California Press, 1990.

Orr et al., 2011, "Intraspecific Comparison of Diet of California Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus) Assessed Using Fecal and Stable Isotope Analyses", Canadian Journal of Zoology, 89:109-122.