If you recall our blog back on May 9th, we directed you to some preliminary findings for a subset of 13 adult female Steller sea lions that were captured and tagged between 2011 and 2015 (marked =24 through =36) in the Aleutian Islands. To follow-up, here’s an update on some of the final findings for those animals.
So, what influences a sea lion’s decision to stay close to home or hit the highway, so to speak? Is it size, age, offspring dependency, geographic region, prey availability, or just individual preference? Actually, it’s hard to say because we couldn’t find many patterns in the data.
Overall, we found that 7 of 13 animals remained exclusively on the continental shelf and close to shore (and in most cases their capture locations). The remaining 6 animals used both shelf and offshore habitats, traveling as far as 420 km (261 miles) into the open ocean, often referred to as ‘pelagic waters’. In some cases, sea lions traveled south of the Aleutian Island chain into the North Pacific Ocean, either near or beyond the Aleutian Trench, whereas two sea lions visited off-shelf areas in the western Bering Sea.
So, what influences a sea lion’s decision to stay close to home or hit the highway, so to speak? Is it size, age, offspring dependency, geographic region, prey availability, or just individual preference? Actually, it’s hard to say because we couldn’t find many patterns in the data. For example, there did not appear to be a relationship between distance traveled from haul-out site and sea lion body weight. In fact, both the smallest and largest individuals we captured displayed similar movement behaviors. Remember, =34 was the largest sea lion we captured and =35 was the smallest sea lion we captured, yet both of them stayed close to shore (though =34 wasn’t strictly a homebody; see map below). We’re also uncertain if age influenced the movements of those animals because they weren’t permanently marked previously, nor did we use methods to age them with certainty. As a whole, however, the adult females did tend to venture into offshore areas more frequently than the juveniles we’ve tagged in the past.
Perhaps the age of the females’ offspring influenced their behaviors. For this study, we specifically targeted females that appeared to have a dependent pup and/or juvenile. For the most part, we were able to determine that most of the tagged females were lactating when they were captured and three females may have had a yearling (=32, =33, and =34). Again, there did not appear to be an obvious pattern in the data suggesting that adult females with offspring of different ages behave differently, but additional samples are needed to explore this idea. Similarly, our sample size was too small to detect any inter-annual or regional patterns in the data. However, it’s probably worth noting that some sea lions tagged at the same site during the same year even displayed different behaviors.
More than likely, females that traveled offshore were targeting oceanographic features known to concentrate prey items like meso-scale eddies, fronts, or currents, whereas females that remained close to shore may have been targeting prey items associated with benthic features. Although these habitat associations weren’t readily apparent for all individuals, the dive data tended to support this theory.
Overall, we found females primarily foraged at night. They used a combination of benthic (to the sea floor) and epipelagic (surface waters or top zone of the ocean where light still penetrates) foraging strategies. The satellite tags of 10 females were programmed such that dives were tallied into depth bins, which were received as histogram messages for six hour periods throughout the day. Together, these data indicated that average dive depths were shallow during night and deeper during day when they were in pelagic waters (open ocean), whereas the opposite occurred when they were in waters on the continental shelf, or nearshore. This pattern suggests the females were possibly feeding on vertically migrating prey species (e.g. Salmonidae, Myctophidae, and Gonatidae) while off-shelf, whereas when foraging closer to shore, they may have been feeding on Atka mackerel. Atka mackerel display surface directed vertical excursions during daylight hours and little to no vertical migration during night.
Interestingly, the remaining three sea lions (=33, =34, and =36) had tags that provided dive depths with a time stamp. This allowed us to interpolate their dives to their location data along with some bathymetry data. Those data indicated most of the dives for =34 and =36, which primarily remained on the shelf, were benthic dives (most of which occurred at night). In contrast, the majority of dives for =33, which used both shelf and non-shelf habitat, were epipelagic (or shallow surface) dives throughout the day. To that end, maybe the old adage “different strokes for different sea lions” goes without saying.
I am a wildlife biologist with MML’s Alaska Ecosystem Program, where I am responsible for designing, implementing, and reporting field research related to the foraging ecology and health of Alaskan Steller sea lions and northern fur seals. I received a B.S. in biology from SUNY Albany, a M.S. in marine science at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, and earned my Ph.D. from the School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences at the University of Washington. Prior to my employment at MML in July of 2004, I held positions with North Pacific Wildlife Consultants and The Marine Mammal Center.
Understanding northern fur seal relationship with prey key to conservation
October 11, 2017
Carey Kuhn Biologist
This blog was featured on the Alaska Fisheries Science Center’s Dispatches from the Field. Since we have seen a sighting of a northern fur seal on Steller Watch we thought it would be great to share this incredible project with you all. Katie Sweeney of the Steller Watch team recently returned from the trip effort in September!
July 7, 2016—The northern fur seal population on the Pribilof Islands, Alaska has been experiencing an unexplained decline since the mid-1970s. This despite it being one of the most studied marine mammals.
Critical information is still lacking about the relationship between fur seals and their prey, which is mostly fish. That’s why this summer scientists will begin researching where the prey is located, how abundant it is and how that affects fur seals’ behavior and population trends.
In mid-July, we start tracking adult female northern fur seals in the Bering Sea near the Pribilof Islands using temporary tags glued onto the animals. The tags are removed after the animals make a few trips to sea.
At the same time, researchers will also be measuring the availability of fish that are the seal’s main food source. This part of the study is made possible by using two Saildrones. The Saildrones are unmanned, solar and wind powered boats that are collecting data across the Bering Sea this summer. Follow their movements here.
This project is an important step forward in our understanding of northern fur seal ecology and behavior. It’s vital for developing effective management and conservation strategies as the northern fur seal population continues to decline.
Check out the blog posted during the first year of this project conducted during the summer of 2016.
Tagging females at strategic breeding site on the northeast point of St. Paul Island
July 20, 2016—We’re half way through our field work capturing and tagging fur seals breeding on St. Paul Island, Alaska. We arrived on St. Paul on July 13 and after gathering our gear and doing basic upkeep to our equipment, we headed out to a northern fur seal rookery, or breeding site, last Thursday. We’re working at the northeast point of St. Paul Island, at the Vostochni rookery.
This site was chosen for a number of reasons. One consideration was the ability to maneuver around the terrain and groups of animals, which are called harems, with our capture gear.
The terrain also provides great cover to easily recapture the animals later in the season. The instruments we use to track the fur seals record and store all of the data so it’s necessary to recapture these animals to get a complete picture of their behavior over the summer breeding season.
But the most important reason we chose Vostochni rookery is that we have good historical data on the fur seals that breed here. Based on previous studies we know that fur seals from northeast point generally feed north and northwest of the island on the Bering Shelf. This information helps us know where to direct the unmanned Saildrones that will gather information about fur seals’ prey.
For this part of the study, there are three of us on the field team: Jeremy Sterling a colleague from the Marine Mammal Lab, John Skinner a volunteer who works for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and me.
So far, we’ve captured and instrumented 17 females and we are aiming for 30. Each fur seal is equipped with a satellite-linked dive recorder that will measure dive behavior and provide at-sea location information. These data will be linked with the fish abundance data measured by the Saildrones to help us understand how prey availability influences fur seal behavior.
Met our tagging goal and already obtaining important at-sea data about northern fur seals
July 25, 2016—Today the team is heading home to Seattle after a very successful field session. But I’ll be coming back in September to complete the study. For this first leg, we reached our goal and captured 30 fur seal mother-pup pairs and deployed 30 satellite tracking instruments on the adult females. We were pretty excited about that 30th fur seal. As of today, all but four of the fur seals are out to sea on their first summer foraging trip of the year. The remaining four will likely leave in the next day or two.
We use what we call the “box” or “tank” to move into the rookery, between harems, and work on an animal. I can’t help but think of the Flintstone’s car as we pick up our box and drive it into the rookery each day.
I mentioned in the last post that I’d tell you how we catch the fur seals. It’s not easy during the early breeding season (July) since male fur seals are aggressive about holding territories and keeping females within their harem, or group of females.
We use what we call the “box” or “tank” to move into the rookery, between harems, and work on an animal. I can’t help but think of the Flintstone’s car as we pick up our box and drive it into the rookery each day. Often, we can position the box right next to a harem with minimal disturbance. Check out this blog to learn more about the box-capture technique.
We then select a female and pull her into our box leaving her head out, facing the harem. This year we also collected each female’s pup to get its weight measurement. This will help us track the pup’s growth over the season which is linked to mom’s success finding food. The more fish a female fur seal can find, the more milk she can give her pup.
Now that most of the females are out at sea, the tags are collecting detailed diving data which are stored on the device until I can recover them. The tags also send location information through satellites so we know where the fur seals are and we can watch the fur seals’ movements in relation to the two Saildrones that are measuring fish densities.
Currently, each Saildrone is following a grid pattern that we had established before tagging the females. But as the season progresses, we can adjust the pattern to make sure the Saildrones are sampling the feeding areas that our tagged fur seals are using.
As I said, I head back to St. Paul Island in September but I’ll be with a different team of researchers. We’ll recover all of the satellite tracking instruments and see how much the pups have grown.
In the coming weeks, I’ll share the latest information we’re getting from the fur seals, the Saildrones (click to follow the Saildrones’ movements), and any new discoveries we come across. This is crucial information that will help us in our efforts to conserve northern fur seals.
Early results from Saildrone research mission, one fur seal traveled 165 miles for food
August 22, 2016—We’re quickly approaching the final days of the northern fur seal portion of the Saildrone 2016 mission. The two Saildrones have already surveyed more than 1700 miles within the fur seal foraging area. Devices attached to the unmanned boats are measuring and locating walleye pollock, northern fur seals’ main food source.
As for the fur seals, I’ve been closely monitoring limited real-time data coming in from the tags glued onto the animals. All tracking instruments continue to send useful information about the fur seals’ movements and dive behavior. Each fur seal has made between three and five foraging trips, alternating time at sea with time on land nursing their growing pup and resting too.
I’m really looking forward to September when I head back to St. Paul Island to weigh the pups, measure their growth and recover the tracking instruments, obtaining a wealth of information stored directly on the tags.
Meanwhile, there is still that smaller group of fur seals not feeding within the grid pattern the Saildrones have been following. We want to learn more about what they are feeding on too. That’s why in the next couple of days we’ll have the Saildrones move farther north and east, where the other animals are traveling.
After that, one Saildrone will make a quick trip east to listen for critically endangered North Pacific Right whales. There are just an estimated 30 left. Then both boats head back to Dutch Harbor, Alaska to end the mission.
The next step will be starting the process of analyzing all the data from the fur seal tags and the devices on the Saildrone. It will take a couple of months for my colleague, fisheries biologist Alex De Robertis and me to process all the information. We are excited to get a better idea of the prey available to the fur seals during these summer months which may help us unravel why this population continues to decline.
Recovering instruments and collecting blood samples to gain a wealth of new information
September 29, 2016—I’m back on St. Paul Island and fur seal recaptures are well underway. We started the work on Thursday and have already recovered 22 instruments! It’s been an intense couple of days but we are happy to be ahead of schedule.
Catching fur seals this time of year is much different than catching them in July. The box has been put back into storage. Now we are spending much of our time on the ground, crawling among the fur seals. Read how seasons affect fur seal capturing techniques.
Once an animal is caught, her tracking instruments are removed by cutting the top layer of hair just under the instrument. This layer is called the guard hair and it will regrow after the fur seal goes through her annual molt in October. We also collect external or morphometric measurements, including the animals’ weight and length, and take a blood sample. The blood will be used in a variety of studies, including: an assessment of general health, a study investigating mercury levels, and research measuring stable isotopes as a method for identifying foraging locations.
While mother fur seals are out at sea feeding, their pups are spending time sleeping, playing, and roaming the rookery in little pup packs. This makes the pups a little harder to catch. And since pups are not marked in any way, it’s also difficult to match mothers with their rightful pups. An instrumented mom and her pup are often surrounded by a number of other pups awaiting their moms’ return. But despite this challenge, we have been quite successful and captured 12 mother-pup pairs so far.
The ten other recaptured females were not with their pups when we caught them. So, as we wait for the remaining instrumented females to return to the island, we will try to catch as many of those pups as we can. Pups are an important part of the study because we can use their weight gain over the summer to determine how successful their mothers were during foraging trips. The largest pup to date was 34 pounds, more than double what he weighed in July.
Since the majority of the instruments have been recovered, we expect the remaining animals to trickle in over the next few days. Check back next week for more instrument recovery updates. Will we meet our goal? I’ll also share a glimpse of the data that we collected this year!
New data from satellite instruments shows stark differences in fur seal feeding behavior
October 13, 2016— After a very busy couple of weeks, I am happy to report that I am back in Seattle and ready to start the next leg of our 2016 Saildrone mission: data analysis!
We were able to recapture 29 of the 30 instrumented females and remove their tags, resulting in one of our highest instrument recovery rates in years. Eighteen of those females were caught with their pups, giving us the ability to link the females’ foraging behavior and their reproductive success.
I wanted to share with you what our fur seal dive records look like. Below are two females’ dive patterns. They’re good examples of how different dive behavior can be between individuals. The graphs show dive behavior over the same 12 hours window – but on different days. The top plot is for July 28. The second plot is from July 30. Notice how both the number of dives and dive depths differ between these two fur seals.
The first female (top graph in image above) was regularly diving more than 70 meters which is about 200 feet. The second female (bottom graph) never went past about 65 meters and only went to that depth twice. Yet, the foraging grounds used by these two females were relatively close, just northeast of St. Paul Island. We don’t know why there are such differences but we hope to find out.
The data collected from the Saildrone will be able to tell us more about the fish at these fur seals’ foraging sites. Perhaps we’ll find that where the first seal was feeding the pollock were larger in deeper water.
The data analysis stage will take several months and the process is a collaborative effort. I’ll be analyzing all of the fur seal data and will work with my colleague Alex De Robertis who is examining the fish abundance data. That information was collected from acoustic devices attached to the Saildrone. We’ll merge the data sets to get a clearer picture of fur seals and their pollock prey in the Pribilof Islands.
This field season was incredibly successful overall and it wouldn’t have been possible without the hard work of my field teams in both July and September. Their enthusiasm and commitment, even in some awful weather conditions, made it possible to recover a wealth of data that will be vital for helping us understand fur seal declines.
Carey Kuhn is an ecologist at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center’s Marine Mammal Laboratory. Carey joined the Lab’s Alaska Ecosystems program in 2007 after completing her Ph.D. at the University of California Santa Cruz. Her research focuses on the at-sea behavior of northern fur seals.
*Notes: Research conducted and photos collected under the authority of MMPA Permit No. 14327. All data presented here are preliminary analyses and subject to change.
Our remote camera images give us insights about sea lion behavior onshore, but where do they go when they’re at sea? To better understand why their numbers are declining in parts of the Aleutian Islands, we need to know where Steller sea lions forage (or hunt) for their prey that consists of fish and squid. Due to our concern with declining pup births, we are focusing on monitoring adult females’ hunting patterns while they are pregnant, and may also be nursing a pup.
The best way to track an individual sea lion’s movements and dive behavior is by using satellite-linked transmitters, also known as satellite tags. The tags are slightly larger than a deck of cards and allow us to see where sea lions go, how deep they dive, and when they come to shore. This information is saved to the tag, then up-linked to satellites (via the Argos satellite location and data collection system) so we can download the data later when we’re back at the office.
The best time to attach tags on females is complicated by their biology and the weather in the Aleutians. Sea lions shed their fur from August through November. That means if we attach a tag before she has molted, the tag will fall off with her shed fur. Unfortunately, large storms and typhoons tend to kick up after September, and the high seas and strong winds can keep us from being able to work. By November the storms intensify through winter. So, we schedule our trips during October when many of the females have already molted and storm activity is just beginning.
Attaching the tags onto the animals is a coordinated effort to minimize any impacts on the sea lions and any risks to the researchers who must get close to adult females that weighs more than 800 pounds.
Attaching the tags onto the animals is a coordinated effort to minimize any impacts on the sea lions and any risks to the researchers who must get close to adult females that weigh more than 800 pounds. We work with colleagues from Alaska Department of Fish and Game, University of Alaska Fairbanks, and the Vancouver Aquarium to safely capture and handle the adult female sea lions. It can take up to 12 scientists to have the expertise necessary to safely capture, sample, and attach a satellite tag.
Similar to our summer research cruises to look for marked animals, we visit known sea lion sites and take the inflatable skiff to shore to drop off the team and heavy gear. The problem with finding animals during October is that they are a lot harder to locate than they are during the summer breeding season when they gather on land in larger numbers. But your work classifying remote camera images on Steller Watch, helps us pinpoint the most popular sites.
Once we arrive near a site with a good number of females, we find a safe place to land, which can sometimes be up to a mile away. The whole team hikes and climbs to a staging location and the scouting begins. A few people, including a skilled darter, will sneak up to get a closer look, searching to maximize our chances for a successful capture. When all the conditions are just right, sedatives are loaded into a dart that will be delivered from C02-powered rifle.
It takes a lot of stealth and patience to slowly sneak in for the perfect line-up. Steller sea lions have great sensory capabilities. That means if they smell, see, or hear you, they will head into the ocean. Once in position and a female is in a good location, the skilled darter will take the shot and the dart—essentially a flying syringe—launches and hits, the sedative is delivered immediately and the dart falls out.
The rest of the team hears the good news on the radio call and waits about 10-minutes for the sedative to kick in. The veterinarian and a few others are the first to approach the adult female. The veterinarian administers gas anesthesia and as soon as she is assured that the animal is doing well, she gives the OK. Suddenly the team erupts into hurried and quiet movements and a lot happens very quickly and efficiently to ensure safety of the sea lion and keep the handling time as short as possible.
I immediately get to work on attaching the satellite tag on top of her head—the best body location to maximize satellite up-links. First, I clean and brush the fur to remove dirt and loose fur, then I align the tag for good fit, and finally I use quick-setting epoxy to glue the tag to the fur. In the meantime other biologists are taking measurements and samples for laboratory analysis that will allow us to assess her physical condition, health, and whether she has any diseases or contaminants. She is marked for future identification, just the like the animals you see in the remote camera images. When everyone is done, we clear away and the veterinarian administers the reversal agents to counteract the sedatives, and removes the gas anesthesia device. The female starts to wake and rather quickly is up and on her way, usually to the water, as we all watch, hidden from her view.
Between 2011 and 2015, 13 adult females have been captured and tracked in the Aleutian Islands; you’ll see them in the remote camera images marked with an equal sign (“=”) and numbers, from 25 to 36. We’ve had great success with the satellite tag data—we even tracked one female up to 254 days! This information offers insights into their behavior leading up to when they give birth in the following summer breeding season. Adult female Steller sea lions in the Aleutian Islands have shown a diversity of foraging behaviors, from remaining exclusively nearshore on short trips, to trips of over 260 miles (420 km) offshore and lasting six days.
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.
The not-so-glamorous way we investigate Steller sea lion diets
March 15, 2017 Lowell Fritz Biologist
You are what you eat. That’s the basic philosophy behind monitoring the diets of wild animals. In the case of Steller sea lions, we can’t see what they are eating since they feed at-sea, so we have to investigate their diet in other ways. The most common way to find out what Steller sea lions are eating is to — wait for it — collect and analyze their feces. That’s right, we go onshore to sea lions sites, where they have hauled out and pick up after them. Here’s a picture of a group of us ready to collect scat.
Collecting scat is just like cleaning up after your dog, if your dog weighed over 2,000 pounds! We use gallon size bags for samples. A good collection of many scat samples from one site might weigh 60 lbs.
What can we learn about their diet from analyzing their scat? Well, quite a bit. Sea lions can swallow many fish, squid and octopus whole. Fish bones and squid and octopus beaks from their mouth parts, gradually make their way through the sea lion’s digestive tract. We can isolate these hard parts in the scat to identify individual prey species from just a few bones.
In the lab, the scats are washed in sieves and the hard debris left behind is cleaned and studied further under a microscope. Each solid bit is compared to other parts kept in our reference collection of known sea lion prey species. As you can imagine, it takes a lot of skill and time to make identifications from small fragments.
Hard parts left behind in sieve
At the microscope identifying hard parts
Hard parts in the reference collection
Aside from cataloging hard parts, we can also analyze prey DNA found in the soft parts of the scat. This technique is especially good at detecting prey that don’t have very many hard parts (invertebrates like squid and octopus), fish that are very large and may not always be consumed whole (like Pacific cod), and fish that have small and fragile bones (like smooth lumpsucker) that may not make it through the digestive track undamaged. But DNA studies are expensive, so, we use this technique to supplement the traditional studies of hard parts, such as a recent description of the late winter diet of sea lions in the Aleutians.
Collecting scat is just like cleaning up after your dog, if your dog weighed over 2,000 pounds!
Steller sea lions target fish that aggregate near the bottom of the ocean or in the middle the water column. While sea lions can dive a lot deeper than humans, they aren’t considered deep divers compared to other marine mammal species. Most of the prey they target live on the continental shelf in waters less than 650 feet deep — that’s still a little deeper than the Space Needle in Seattle is tall.
Steller sea lions in the Aleutian Islands have a diverse diet. In the Aleutians, there are almost 300 species of fish alone, plus dozens of species of squid and octopus. Steller sea lions consume about 50 different species, usually whatever is the most abundant fish in the area.
Here are some of the most common prey items we see in the Aleutian Islands:
Atka mackerel is one of the most abundant yearlong resident fish in the Aleutians Islands, and it also sustains the largest commercial fishery in the region. During the summer, Steller sea lions feed on enough Atka mackerel to make up more than half of their diet. In winter, the fish make up about a quarter of their diet.
Like Atka mackerel, Pacific cod are year round residents and since they grow up to 43 inches long and weigh up to 37 pounds they are probably the biggest fish that sea lions eat in the Aleutian Islands. Pacific cod are consumed more often in winter than summer. In winter, Pacific cod make up about one quarter of the sea lion diet.
Sculpins are bottom-dwelling (demersal) fish that are widely distributed on the continental shelf. Steller sea lions eat mostly red Irish lords based on our DNA analyses. They eat sculpins mostly in winter, when they make up about 15 percent of their diet.
Salmon aren’t considered year round residents of the Aleutian Islands. Steller sea lions eat mostly pink and sockeye salmon based on our DNA analyses, and they eat salmon mostly in summer.
These funny little guys are an enigma. Not much is known about their abundance and distribution, but Steller sea lions eat them far more often in winter (10 percent of their diet), when lumpsuckers aggregate to spawn, than in summer. Lumpsuckers are named for their pelvic fins that have evolved to form an adhesive disk that enables them to latch onto rocks in areas with a lot of current, like the Aleutian Islands.
Squid and octupuses:
Cephalopods are a group of invertebrates that includes both squid and octopus. Based on DNA evidence in scat, we know Steller sea lions more commonly prey on giant Pacific octopus. Cephalopods make up about 10 percent of the sea lion diet in winter.
I have been studying Steller sea lions since 1990 with NOAA Fisheries Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. My primary research interests are sea lion population dynamics, demographics, and interactions with commercial fisheries. I’ve also worked on fish during my career with NOAA, particularly species eaten by sea lions, like Atka mackerel, walleye pollock (you may know them as fish sticks and imitation “krab”), and Pacific cod. I graduated from Bucknell University (B.A. Biology, 1976) and College of William and Mary (M.S. Marine Science, 1982), and started my science career in 1982 at Rutgers University as a Research Associate. At Rutgers, I worked at the Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory in Bivalve, NJ (down the road from Shellpile… you can’t make this up) studying the shells of mollusks living in habitats ranging from freshwater lakes and streams to deep-sea hydrothermal vents. I even had the opportunity to go down in the Alvin submersible!
*Images of Aleutian Island sea lion prey were borrowed from other NOAA Fisheries programs.