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FB Live Answers – Steller Sea Lions

steller sea lions in the pacific northwest habitat
Special thanks to all who tuned into our Facebook Live on March 29. Find the answers to all our questions here!

Why are there bars between the sea lions and the trainers?  Can they not be trained like the other animals? While Stellers are trained in the same manner as other marine mammals by positive reinforcement, at Mystic Aquarium, because of the size of the Stellers, we choose protective contact methods. There are many types of animals that, for their safety and the safety of their trainers, zoos and aquariums choose to train through some sort of barrier.  Some other animals you might see be trained this way are primates, elephants, and big cats, for example.

 

How did the sea lions get their names? All of the Steller sea lions that live at Mystic Aquarium were all named before they arrived.  A lot of the times the people that work with them first will name them.  For example, Astro stranded in California and was rescued by the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito.  The good Samaritan that found him on the beach and called the rescue team named him Astro and the name stuck!  Perl, our 4 year old Steller sea lion was born at the Alaska SeaLife Center and her trainers named her!

How fast are they in water and on land? Easton, age 4. Hi Easton! Good question!  Steller sea lions don’t swim very fast but in the water, they tend to move between 6 to 18 miles per hour. The faster speeds are clocked in short bursts. On land they move slower than that because a lot of their speed is needed in the water when they’re chasing after their food that they want to eat!  

Can you tell us about how you train them some time? Stay tuned for future Facebook Lives on this exciting topic. In the meantime, we want to share information. Stellers is done through positive reinforcement and complex behaviors are broken down into smaller, simpler steps that we teach one by one.  It’s sort of like going to school!  You have to learn your basics in Kindergarten before you can go to elementary school and so on and so forth.  Training takes a lot of patience and trust between the animals and trainers and each animal learns differently and at different paces just like we do!

Why are they brown? When dry, Steller sea lions are a tan to golden-brown color and darken to a chocolate brown on their flippers and underside. They appear dark brown or black when wet. This coloration helps to serve as a camouflage allowing them to blend into dark colors of the ocean waters as well as on the rocks or cliff faces high above the water where they may also be found.

Why do they have whiskers? Their facial whiskers or vibrissae are used to sense prey and feel their way underwater. Did you know that sea lions can even feel the vibrations of a school of fish with their vibrissae without having to see them?? 

Why do they bark like that? This low-frequency vocalization makes it sound more like a bark or a roar. This is how they earned the name sea “lion” because they sound like a lion sometimes!  Sea lions use their vocalizations to communicate with each other. Each sound means something different to each animal.   

How many eggs do they have at a time? They don’t lay eggs but have live births. A female will give birth to a single pup.

How long are they? Adult males may be up to 11 feet long and can weigh up to 2,400 pounds. Adult females are 7.5 to 9.5 feet long and weigh up to 700 pounds.

What do they eat? Steller sea lions will feed on over 100 different species of fish!  They also eat octopus and some squids.

How long do they live? In the wild, males can live to be up to 20 years old, while females can live to be approximately 30. In human-care, with regulated water quality, veterinary care, consistent diet and the absence of predators, they can live even longer! 

How are seals and sea lions similar and how are they different?  There are a lot of differences between seals and sea lions!  Seals have short furred front flippers with a claw on each small toe while sea lions have skin-covered, elongated fore flippers.  Sea lions have small flaps for outer ears while seals lack external ears altogether. Sea lions have a rotating hip bone and can ‘walk’ on their hind flippers. Sea lions tend to live in rookeries or social groupings while seals are more solitary. Finally, sea lions are much more vocal than their seal cousins. Seals and sea lions are similar because they belong to a class of animals known as pinnipeds which means “wing-footed”.  They both spend a lot of time in the water and on land and their bodies are both well adapted for both environments!  

Do Pearl and Eden know they are related? It’s hard to say whether they “know” if they’re related but they definitely recognize each other because they’ve been together for Perl’s whole life!  Steller sea lions only rely on their moms for a short time after birth so once Perl was weaned from Eden’s milk, she didn’t need her as much anymore.  We definitely think that they recognize each other’s personalities and mannerisms. 

How do they swim? They propel themselves through the water using their front flippers.

Do you have to have a degree just to volunteer? There are several volunteer opportunities available at Mystic Aquarium that require varying degrees of education. Visit https://www.mysticaquarium.org/careers/volunteering/ for more information.

Do you ever swim with them? We do not. 

Can they stand on their back flippers? They sure can!

Are there any sea lions native to New England? There are no sea lions indigenous to New England.

How deep can they dive? Diving ability changes with age. The deepest dive documented is about 1,400 feet in depth.

How many do you have there? We have four Steller sea lions at Mystic Aquarium – Astro, Sitka, Eden and Perl.

Are they boys or girls? Amanda, age 9. Hi Amanda! We have one male, Astro, and three females – Sikta, Eden and Perl.

How old do you need to be to volunteer? For animal care or husbandry volunteer positions you must be at least 18 years of age. Other opportunities are available beginning at 15 years of age.

How old are they? Perl is 4, Eden is 20, and Astro and Sitka are both 14.

How much food do they eat in a day? Isabella, age 7. Hi Isabella! Great question! Each Steller sea lion eats a different diet depending on many factors including if they are a male or female, how old they are, how much they weigh, and what time of the year it is!  Right now Astro is eating 30 pounds of fish, Eden is eating 25 pounds of fish, Perl is eating 23 pounds of fish and Sitka is eating 21 pounds of fish! 

How long they stay with their mother? Pups usually nurse for a year, but some continue to nurse for up to three years.

Do Stellers they have tails? Jillian, age 3.5 Hi Jillian!  Stellers do have tails!! But they don’t use them for anything!  They have a small tail in between their 2 hind flippers!  Look for it next time you see a sea lion!

Who’s their favorite trainer? Each animal that we work with has a different relationship with each trainer!  They don’t necessarily have a favorite, however, the Stellers have primary trainers that they may see more often so they generally develop a stronger relationship with those trainers.  We’d all like to think that we are their favorites! J

How often do they mate? In the wild, there is an annual breeding season.  There is no breeding program at Mystic Aquarium.

Do the sea lions swallow their food whole? Or do they chew with teeth? Sea lions swallow their fish whole!  They use their teeth to grab onto their prey before they eat them.  This helps them eat more fish in a shorter amount of time!  If they took the time to chew each fish, the rest of the school would catch on pretty quickly and swim away and they wouldn’t have any dinner!

Why are they called sea lions? Gianna, age 9. Hi Gianna! They have a thick neck with longer fur that resembles a lion’s mane. They also make a sound when they communicate that sounds like the roar of a lion!

Can they see in the dark? Their large eyes allow them to see in low light conditions.

Are they flexible? Haley 10. Hi Haley! Sea lions are very agile which means they can move very well in water and on land.  They can climb up rocks and move their bodies different ways to help with that.  They do have a very flexible neck!  So flexible they can touch their noses all the way to their spines!  This allows them to catch fish quickly as they swim around them in the ocean.

 Are they smart? Eddie, age 6. Hi Eddie. Yes! Sea lions are very smart!  They all learn differently just like you learn differently from your friends! 

Can they see underwater? Sesame, age 8. Hi Sesame!  Sea lions can see very well underwater and above water because they spend so much time in both locations.  Being able to see underwater helps them to find their fish!

How much fur do they have? They have thick, course fur that helps them keep warm in the colder temperate to subarctic waters. 

Do they do tricks? Zoey, age 5. Hi Zoey! The Steller sea lions, like all the mammals at Mystic Aquarium, are trained for what we call behaviors.  They are not called tricks! Do you know why? Because they are not magical!  We can teach our sea lions to do lots of things that help us to take good care of them and are lots of fun!  

What is there favorite toy? Gavin, age 9. Hi Gavin!  All of the Steller sea lions like different toys.  Astro does have a favorite toy though.  It’s a large, blue plastic toy that he likes to push around his habitat with his nose! 

Do they get spayed and neutered? Animals are spayed or neutered at zoos and aquariums for different reasons.  It depends on the facility, their animal management needs, and the status of their breeding programs.

What predators eat sea lions? Tiago, age 5. Hi Tiago! The main predators of Steller sea lions are killer whales and sharks. Unfortunately, Stellers also are exposed to a variety of human-caused threats!

How long can they stay under water? Sea lions can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes if they need to.  Most times, however, they are average a shorter duration as they are not diving very deep to hunt their prey or to swim.

 Why do they have flippers? Cameron age 5. Hi Cameron!  Steller sea lions use their flippers to move on land and in the water!  They need them to move just like you need your arms and legs!  

Do they live in the ocean? The cool thing about sea lions is that they can spend time in both the ocean as well as on land.  Steller sea lions are found in the northern Pacific Ocean from California up to Alaska and even over to Japan!

Can they clap? Sea lions can move their front flippers very well.  The “clapping” behavior that you refer to is a behavior that is sometimes trained at zoos and aquariums to show guests are agile their flippers are but they don’t “clap” like we clap our hands for things.

Do they have sharp teeth? Henry, age 6. Good question Henry!  Steller sea lions do have sharp teeth!  An adult male Steller can have a canine tooth the size of a human’s thumb!  They have a mix of both sharp canine teeth and others are more blunt molars.  

How fast can she swim? They swim between 6 to 18 miles per hour. The faster speeds are clocked in short bursts.

Can some of the sea lions do flips? We can train the sea lions to do behaviors like flips for exercise and to demonstrate to our guests how agile they are.   But flipping is something that isn’t commonly seen out in the ocean with Steller sea lions.

 Are any of the sea lions are pregnant? Mila, age 6.  Hi Mila!  None of our Steller sea lions are pregnant as we do not have a breeding colony currently.  However, we have had Steller sea lions born here in the past!

Is their fur waterproof?  A Steller sea lion’s fur is not exactly waterproof but it does help to keep them warm in colder water and air.  Their fur acts as a secondary insulation to the really important blubber layer that they have that is the main way they stay warm!

How long does it take to teach a behavior?  It depends on what the complexity of the behavior is that we are training!  Some behaviors like important healthcare behaviors such as voluntary blood draws could take months or years, a simpler enrichment behavior like a spin in the water might take a few days or week.  Also, each animal learns at a different rate like we do so that is a factor that is something that dictates how long a behavior takes to learn.

Do they like people? In the wild, Stellers are skittish around people.  Of course, no wild animal should ever be approached.  Here at Mystic Aquarium the trainers build a very strong relationship with all of our animals so that we can care for them on a daily basis.  The Steller sea lions respect their trainers as we respect them!  It also helps that we come out with big buckets of fish to feed them! 

What temperature is too cold for them? With their layers of fur and blubber they can withstand very cold temperatures in the subarctic environment.  At Mystic Aquarium our water is chilled in the warmer months to around 60 degrees Fahrenheit and in the winter it gets to be around 50 degrees.  

Why are they called Stellers? They were named for Georg Wilhelm Steller, the German surgeon and naturalist on the Bering expedition who first described and wrote about the species in 1742.

Where do they live? Mainly around the coasts along the North Pacific Ocean rim from northern Hokkaido, Japan through the Kuril Islands and Sea of Okhotsk, the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea, the southern coast of Alaska, and south to central California.

Do you have any baby sea lions? We don’t have pups but we do have a young almost 4 year old female Steller named Perl.  She and her mom Eden joined us at the end of 2018 from the Alaska SeaLife Center is Seward, Alaska.

How many words do they understand? Colin, age 8. Colin this is a great question!  Sea lions are cool because they can understand words like dogs can so we can communicate with them using words as well as hand signals!  I don’t know how many they can learn but it’s a lot and they know their names too!

Are you planning on breeding them? We have no plans to do so at this time.

What temp is the water kept at? At Mystic Aquarium our water at the Pacific Northwest habitat is chilled in the warmer months to around 60 degrees Fahrenheit and in the winter it gets to be around 50 degrees. 

 Do normal seals roar too? “True” seals do not roar but they do have vocals.

How do you keep the water temp cold in the summer? We have chillers.

When did you get them? Astro came to us in 2008 from the Marine Mammal Center in California.  He was a rescued animal that had stranded multiple times and had become too accustom to humans as a result so he was deemed non-releasable by the National Marine Fisheries Service.  Mystic Aquarium then became his permanent home!  Sitka, Eden, and Perl all came to us from the Alaska SeaLife Center.  Sitka arrived in 2015 and Eden and Perl (a mother and daughter pair) joined us in December of 2018.

How long is their gestation period? One year.

What sounds do they make? They have a range of low-frequency roars.

How many teeth can they have? 34-38 teeth.

How often do they eat? In the wild, Steller sea lions eat whenever they can because they never know when the next opportunity will be.  Here at the aquarium we feed them anywhere between 3-10 times a day for variability. 

How much does Perl weigh? Perl currently weighs 329 pounds and she’s still growing!

How can you tell a male from a female? Steller sea lions are sexually dimorphic—adult males are much larger than females. Adult males are further distinguished by long, coarse hair on the chest, shoulders, and back.

How does one become a seal trainer? To be a trainer, you must have a bachelor’s degree in a related field. Many of our trainers have degrees in Biology, Marine Biology, Animal Behavior, Zoology or Psychology. Many of the team also started by volunteering at places like Mystic Aquarium. Check out our website for information on our volunteer programs.

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