Where there’s a whisker, there’s a way

By AG STAFF | June 4, 2014

A study of sea lion whiskers and DNA is shedding light on their foraging and diet.

ONE THE COAST OF SA, an Australian Geographic Society-funded researcher has been studying the snacking habits of the endangered Australian sea lion. By tagging sea lions, watching their movements, and studying the chemical make-up of their whiskers, Dr Andrew Lowther has learnt more about how they find their food and exactly what they like to eat.

Our feature Secrets of the sea lion (AG101) reported the research of sea lion experts Associate Professor Simon Goldsworthy and Dr Brad Page.

For this latest project, Andrew, who is Simon’s former PhD student, was sponsored by the AGS to study the links between the eating habits of sea lion mothers and their pups.

Andrew, who is now based at the Polar Institute in Tromsø, Norway, studied the chemicals in pups’ whiskers and used genetic information to test whether the mothers taught their dependent pups where to find food, or if the skill was innate.

Andrew showed that the skills seemed to be innate and that sea lions only look for food within very thin slices of their habitat, a phenomenon known as fine-scale foraging.

“This means they don’t have a specific diet,” he says. “It’s more that they target whatever ‘dish of the day’ is available at their favourite restaurant.”

The researchers hope that the study will help them understand sea lions’ feeding habits and benefit conservation efforts.