Sea Lion Strandings Climb, Scientists Stumped
Pacific Marine Mammal Center
This year, an unusually high number of sea lion pups have stranded on southern California's shores, overwhelming marine mammal rehab centers.
Originally designed to live on land, marine mammals are a diverse, charismatic group of animals that include more than 120 species. The animals share key characteristics of land mammals. They have hair, breathe air, give birth to live young, which feed off mother's milk when young. They have warm bodies and usually thick blubber to keep their body temperatures high. The bottlenose dolphin is probably the most widely recognized marine mammal, easily spotted just offshore from beaches around the world. Small groups of 20 or less can live in close proximity to shorelines, but groups living more offshore can reach several hundred. Bottlenose dolphin calves stay with their mothers for up to six years, learning how to hunt and become good dolphin citizens. Full-grown dolphins reach eight to 12 feet in length and can weigh up to 1,430 pounds. The bottlenose dolphin is protected in U.S. waters.
What makes them "marine" depends on the animal. They either live mostly in the sea or, like polar bears, depend on the ocean for food. The largest in the group are whales -- including humpback whales. These massive animals reach up to 50 feet in length and weigh up to 79,000 pounds. To maintain their weight, the animals feed on tons of krill and fish. They neared extinction due to whaling, but have recovered somewhat since a 1966 moratorium on whaling was introduced.
While polar bears live mostly on land or ice, they are excellent swimmers and have been known to swim up to 45 miles a day. The massive animals, weighing up to 1,500 pounds, hunt mostly seals. In recent years, biologists have observed that the bears are swimming now more than ever as melting stretches the distances between Arctic ice flows. Because they depend on sea ice to hunt seals, the polar bear is considered threatened as global warming melts and thins ice in this region.
This member of the weasel family is also the smallest marine mammal, with females weighing about 60 pounds and males weighing up to 90 pounds. They may be small, but they're also clever. They're the only marine mammals known to use tools. They use stones to break open clams and store food they gather in the folds of their armpits! Another feature that sets them apart is their lack of blubber. These marine mammals depend mostly on their fur to stay warm. That feature makes them particularly vulnerable to oil spills, which can compromise their fur's insulating effect.
Immediately recognizable by its long tusks and whiskers, the sea walrus is a hefty, flippered member of the Odobenidae family and is, in fact, the last living member of this group. Since both the males and females have big tusks and not much for teeth, the animals feed by sucking up shellfish from the ocean floor. So, just what are those tusks for? The longer they are (they grow to be up to four feet long in males), the higher an animal is ranked in the group. Males attack each other with their tusks to establish dominance. The ivory appendages are also handy for poking holes in the winter ice and for helping the animals pull themselves out of the water.
Manatees, also known as sea cows, are gentle herbivores that live in marshy areas in tropical and subtropical waters. The average adult manatee can weigh up 1,200 pounds and is around 10 feet long. Because of their slow metabolism, these animals can only survive in warm waters. Due to the unusually long, cold winter this year in part of the southeastern United States, populations of manatees throughout Florida were devastated. During the day, manatees usually like to stay close to the surface. At night, manatees will often sleep about three to 10 feet below sea level. This is why these gentle animals are so often accidentally injured, maimed or killed by passing boats.
Found up and down the North American coastlines, these marine mammals spend half of their lives swimming. Although they can reach up to six feet in length and weigh around 180 pounds, when on land and in plain sight harbor seals may not be easy to spot. Their spotted brown or tan fur allows harbor seals to blend in with sand and rocks. Unlike their very vocal relatives -- sea lions and elephant seals -- harbor seals are quiet creatures that make little noise. They like to hang out on beaches, sand bars and rocks during low tide to bask in the sun and sleep, but they never go far from the water. At the slightest sign of danger, they will quickly slip back under the waves. These expert swimmers have been known to plunge to depths of more than 1,600 feet and stay underwater up to 28 minutes.
Scientists still don't know why nearly 1,300 sickly sea lions have beached themselves on the shores of southern California since the beginning of the year. However, they think some weird oceanic phenomenon may be blocking off the sea lion pups' source of food, scientists reported today (April 17).
The stranded sea lions -- mostly pups born last summer -- are typically turning up alive, but severely emaciated, some weighing less than 20 pounds (9 kg) when they should be well over 50 pounds (22 kg), marine officials say.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared an "unusual mortality event" last month in light of the spike in strandings. Since the beginning of the year, 1,293 sea lions have washed ashore from San Diego County to Santa Barbara County. That's more than five times higher than the region's historical average of 236, averaged from the same period of time (January through April) from 2008 to 2012, said Sarah Wilkin, NOAA's marine mammal stranding coordinator for California. (Marine Marvels: Spectacular Photos of Sea Creatures)
The problem is most pronounced in Los Angeles County, where 459 strandings have been reported this year as of April 14. During the same period last year, 60 strandings were reported.
California hasn't seen a spike in starving sea lions on this scale since El Niño warmed up Pacific waters in 1998. El Niño conditions can diminish the upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water needed to support large populations of fish that are eaten by other animals like sea lions.
"In the words of some of the other biologists, if this was an El Niño year, it would still be overwhelming but it wouldn't be all that surprising," Wilkin said. But this isn't an El Niño year, so the mystery remains.
Wilkin told reporters today (April 17) that biologists think an unseen oceanographic or environmental phenomenon is likely cutting the sea lion pups' supply of food, much like El Niño would. While adult sea lions and other marine mammals may be able to adapt their feeding habits in the face of a shortage, pups are more limited in how far they can travel for food and what they can eat.
A localized anomaly like that happened in 2009, causing an above-average number of strandings.
"The prevailing onshore winds did not blow as strongly as they usually do and it resulted in a lack of upwelling, which created a foraging difficulty for California sea lions," Wilkin explained.
Toxic algae blooms and infectious disease outbreaks also can trigger mass pup strandings. Researchers don't have evidence that either of those factors are contributing to the problem this year, but scientists are still waiting to see if tests on blood and tissue samples turn up bacterial, viral and other infectious agents or radioactive traces.
In a good sign, there has been a slowdown in the number of stranded, starving sea lion pups being admitted to rehab facilities, Wilkin said. At the same time, other animals are washing up. Northern elephant seals have just entered their stranding season and biologists have found a few adult female sea lions suffering from seizures, suggesting they may have been poisoned by the neurotoxin domoic acid, which is produced by multiple species of the genus Pseudo-nitzschia, a type of algae.
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