Sea Lions Adaptations

Sea lions have adapted to their environment in a multitude of ways. Their bodies, social structures, eating habits and parenting behaviors have all evolved to maximize the sea lions' chances of survival.

Sea lions are extremely fast and agile swimmers. They are capable of reaching speeds of over 20km per hour. Powerful, wing-like front flippers propel the sea lion through the water while the back flippers act as a steering rudder. On land, both sets of flippers are used to push the sea lion forwards in an ungainly but effective "walking" motion. Quite a feat when you consider that a sea lion may weigh up to a ton!

The front flippers, or "fore flippers", contain a bone structure similar to that of human arms and hands. Sea lions are naturally curious animals and will use their fore flippers to pick up items to examine. The action of bringing the flippers together resembles a human clapping motion. You may observe a sea lion "clapping" at a sea lion encounter.

Temperature regulation is vital to the animal's health. The thick layer of blubber under a sea lion's skin acts as insulation and provides an extra energy reserve. Sea lions have developed the ability to regulate their body temperature by floating on their backs and raising a flipper out of the water. During a sea lion encounter you may see an animal which appears to be waving. When exposed to the air, blood vessels within the flipper dilate or constrict in order to absorb or release heat. This process, known as "thermoregulation", heats or cools the seal lion's entire body.

Sea lions are opportunistic, predatory feeders. They will eat almost anything, but their favorite foods include small fish, squid, octopus and shellfish. Their diet is limited only by what is available in their environment. Large sharks and orcas are the sea lion's primary hunters. The thick layer of blubber under the sea lion's skin is an important food source for these apex predators.

Sea lions are very social animals. They float together on the surface of the ocean in large "rafts", and they form large colonies on land during the breeding season. Animals lie close together and even on top of each other. The animals produce a cacophony of sounds. While patrolling their territory, male sea lions "bark" to attract females to their breeding groups. A loud trumpeting sound is used to signal danger. Female sea lions use a variety of distinctive vocalizations to communicate with their pups. In addition to smell and sight, these sounds help the mothers and pups recognize each other in the crowded rookeries. Pups are born in June or July and nurse for at least six months. The constant communication between mothers and pups aids the formation of strong social bonds.

Although protected in many parts of the world, some sea lion populations remain vulnerable. Humans hunt sea lions believing them to be damaging to commercial fish stocks, but research has shown that sea lions rarely consume the types of fish that fisherman are hoping to catch. Conservation efforts focus on protection and education. We still have much to learn about these fascinating animals!