De Lieve (En Dodelijke) Zeeleeuw

Zonnen op rotsen of onhandig waggelend over het strand, het is gemakkelijk om zeeleeuwen meer te zien als zeehuiskatten. Maar laat je niet misleiden door hun strandgedrag. Onder de golven zijn zeeleeuwen ongelooflijke duurjagers, die snelheden van 18 mijl per uur bereiken en tot 30 uur achter elkaar jagen. Claire Simeone duikt in wat deze majestueuze zoogdieren zulke vindingrijke fouragers maakt.

Sunning themselves on rocks or waddling awkwardly across the beach, it’s easy to think of these immobile mammals less as sea lions, and more as sea house cats. But don’t be fooled by their beachside behavior. Under the waves, sea lions are incredible endurance hunters. Hurtling around at speeds from 4 to 18 miles an hour and hunting for up to 30 hours at a time, these majestic mammals live up to their name. And thanks to a suite of physical adaptations, finely tuned over millions of years, they make for resourceful foragers.

To find their favorite food, sea lions hunt much deeper than many of their semi-aquatic peers. With some species diving to depths of nearly 400 meters, they’re able to cope with the mounting pressure by collapsing their pliable rib cage, and compressing a pair of springy lungs. This pushes air up through the smaller airways, collapsing rings of cartilage as oxygen travels out from the lungs, to be held in the larger, upper airways. Upon surfacing, this air will be used to re-inflate the lungs, but for now their heart slows down to preserve oxygen. Blood flow is redirected towards only the most essential organs like the heart, lungs, and brain, which rely on reserve oxygen stored in blood and muscle.

Once they arrive at their hunting ground, sea lions depend on their superior vision to find their prey. Most mammal eyes have a structure called a lens– a transparent, convex structure whose shape refracts light to enable sight. In humans, this lens is curved to process light waves traveling through air. But sea lions need to see their best at hundreds of meters deep. To accommodate, their eyes have a much rounder lens to refract light underwater, as well as teardrop-shaped pupils which can expand to 25 times their original size. This lets in as much light as possible, helping them pinpoint their prey in even the dimmest conditions.

But once they’ve closed in, they rely on something akin to a sixth sense to actually catch their meal. Their whiskers, or vibrissae, are composed of keratin and full of nerve fibers that run deep into the connective tissue of their face. Sea lions have full directional control over these whiskers, which can lie flat against their face, or stick out at a 90-degree angle. When properly tuned, these whiskers can sense the slim trails of moving water fish leave in their wake. And they’re precise enough to let blindfolded sea lions tell the difference between objects less than two centimeters different in size.

With these tools a healthy sea lion can catch generous helpings of fish such as anchovy, mackerel, and squid on every outing. And with their exceptional memories, they can remember multiple hunting grounds, including those they haven’t visited in decades. This memory also extends to breeding territories and birthing areas, as well as which neighbors are friend and foe. There’s even evidence that sea lions can remember how to perform tasks after 10 years with no practice in between, letting them navigate old stomping grounds with ease.

Yet despite these incredible adaptations, there are changes unfolding in their habitats too rapidly for sea lions to handle. As climate change warms the oceans, certain toxic algae species thrive. This algae is harmless to the fish who eat it, but for the sea lions which ingest those fish, the algae’s domoic acid can trigger seizures and brain damage. Changing ocean conditions keep this algae blooming year round, causing more and more sea lions to wash up on beaches.

This tragic discovery is just one of the many ways the health of aquatic animal communities can help us better understand Earth’s oceans. These red flags help us take action to protect ourselves and other maritime mammals. And the more we can learn about the changing ocean that sea lions inhabit, the better equipped we’ll be to help these clever creatures thrive.


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