April 24, 2018
In my last post, I shared how we use pup weights and lengths to calculate a condition index to better understand the health of the pups. When we handle Steller sea lion pups that will be marked, we also collect blood, tissue, and fur samples. Collecting blood and other tissue samples allows us to evaluate health status in another way involving work in a lab. We look at blood chemistry and hematology parameters, to test for signs of disease, contaminant exposure, or other systemic concerns.
Some degree of clinical issues or disease is normal to find in any wild population; we’re interested in determining whether there is evidence of clusters of disease, contaminant exposure, or other concerns at a rookery or greater area. This can provide insight into local conditions that may help explain population declines or lack of recovery. Samples are collected while the pup is gently but firmly restrained by hand.
The board that we place the pup on helps prevent wriggling so the procedure is safe for the pup and handlers. We looked at blood chemistry and hematology profiles of 1,231 pups sampled during 1998-2011 throughout Alaska. We found no indications that pup condition was compromised during their first month after being born, including pups within the declining parts of the Aleutian Islands (Lander et al. 2013).
Exposure to heavy metal contaminants (like mercury) is a concern since Steller sea lions are apex predators, or predators that feed at highest trophic level. In other words, Steller sea lions eat prey that are high up in the food web. That means, if there are contaminants in an environment, the contaminants can bioaccumulate and biomagnify through the food chain. Exposure to high levels of mercury can cause neurological disruption that may impact health and consequently survival and reproduction. Pups accumulate mercury during gestation in utero (while they are a fetus in their mothers), and again once they are born and suckling milk from their mothers. In a project led by collaborators at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Alaska Department of Fish and Game, we’re investigating the mercury burden of pups throughout their range in Alaska and Russia. We shave off a small patch of hair from the pups when we handle them and are then able to measure the mercury content. Specifically, we can figure out the mercury concentration the pup was exposed to from its mother over a period of several months during gestation.
We found that pups in some areas of the endangered western population had a higher mercury exposure than pups from Southeast Alaska (Castellini et al. 2012). The greatest exposure is shown by pups from the Gillon Point rookery on Agattu Island, with three pups showing exposure levels known to cause neurological effects in other fish-eating wildlife (Rea et al. 2013). If you look at the figure below, you can see the difference in mercury exposure (median values are shown by colored lines and average values by black lines) between pups from Agattu Island and other rookeries can be seen in this boxplot that was published in Rea et al. (2017).
We do not have direct evidence that this exposure to mercury during gestation leads to health consequences for the pups and their subsequent survival, nor that it impacts adult reproduction. But, these levels of mercury exposure do indicate that further research is necessary to better understand the role of contaminants in the ecology and biology of Steller sea lions.
I am a research wildlife biologist with NOAA Fisheries Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, in the Alaska Ecosystems Program where I’ve studied Steller sea lions and northern fur seals since 2000. My primary research interest is vertebrate physiological ecology, which at NOAA Fisheries translates into studying sea lion foraging behavior, health status, and body condition to help address conservation questions and wildlife management issues.