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Galápagos Sea Lion

Galápagos Sea Lion

The Galápagos Sea Lion is a species of sea lion that exclusively breeds on the Galápagos Islands and – in smaller numbers – on Isla de la Plata (Ecuador). Being fairly social, and one of the most numerous species in the Galápagos archipelago, they are often spotted sun-bathing on sandy shores or rock groups or gliding gracefully through the surf. Their loud bark, playful nature, and graceful agility in water make them the "welcoming party" of the islands.

Phyiscal Characteristics Edit

Slightly smaller than their Californian relatives, Galápagos sea lions range from 150 to 250 cm (59 to 98 in) in length and weigh between 50 to 400 kg (110 to 880 lb), with the males averaging larger than females. Adult males also tend to have a thicker, more robust neck, chest, and shoulders in comparison to their slender abdomen. Females are somewhat opposite males, with a longer, more slender neck and thick torso. Once sexually mature, a male’s sagittal crest enlarges, forming a small, characteristic bump-like projection on their forehead. Galápagos sea lions, compared to California sea lions, have a slightly smaller sagittal crest and a shorter muzzle. Adult females and juveniles lack this physical characteristic altogether with a nearly flat head and little or no forehead.

Both male and female sea lions have a pointy, whiskered nose and somewhat long, narrow muzzle. The young pups are almost dog-like in profile. Another characteristic that defines the sea lion are their external ear-like pinnae flaps which distinguish them from their close relative with which they are often confused, the seal. The foreflippers have a short fur extending from the wrist to the middle of the dorsal fin surface, but other than that, the flippers are covered in black, leathery skin. Curving posteriorly, the first digit of the flipper is the largest, giving it a swept-back look. At the end of each digit is a claw, usually reduced to a vestigial nodule that rarely emerges above the skin. Although somewhat clumsy on land with their flippers, sea lions are amazingly agile in water. With their streamlined bodies and flipper-like feet, they easily propel themselves through crashing surf and dangerously sharp coastal rocks. They also have the ability to control their flippers independently and thus change directions with ease, and they have more control over their body on land.

When wet, sea lions are a shade of dark brown, but once dry, their color varies greatly. The females tend to be a lighter shade than the males and the pups a chestnut brown. Born with a longer, brownish-black lanugo, a pup's coat gradually fades to brown within the first five months of life. At this time, they undergo their first molt, resulting in their adult coat.

Food Edit

Feeding mostly on sardines, Galápagos sea lions sometimes travel 10 to 15 kilometers from the coast over the span of days to hunt for their prey. This is when they come into contact with their biggest predators: sharks and killer whales. Injuries and scars from attacks are often visible. During el Niño events, however, more green-eyes and myctophids are consumed due to a decrease in sardine population.

Behavior Edit

Galápagos sea lions are especially vulnerable to human activity. Their inquisitive and social nature makes them more likely to approach areas inhabited by humans, and thus come into contact with human waste, fishing nets, and hooks. They occupy many different shoreline types, from steep, rocky cliff sides to low-lying sandy beaches. To avoid overheating during the day, sea lions will take refuge from the sun under vegetation, rocks, and cliffs.

Not only are sea lions social, they are also quite vocal. Adult males often bark in long, loud and distinctive repeated sequences. Females and juveniles do not produce this repetitive bark, but both sexes and the younger pups will growl. From birth, a mother sea lion recognizes her pup’s distinct bark and can pinpoint it from a crowd of 30 or more barking sea lions.

On land, sea lions form colonies at their hauling-out areas. Adult males, bulls, are the head of the colony, growing up to 7 ft (2;m) long and weighing up to 800lb. As males grow larger, they fight to win dominance of a harem of between five and 25 cows, and the surrounding territory. Swimming from border to border of his colony, the dominant bull jealously defends his coastline against all other adult males. While patrolling his area, he frequently rears his head out of the water and barks, as an indication of his territorial ownership.

The average dominant bull holds his territory for only a few months, until he is challenged by another male. On land, these fights start by two bulls stretching out their necks and barking in attempt to test each other’s bravery. If this is not enough to scare the opponent off, they begin pushing each other and biting around the neck area. If males were not equipped with thick, muscular necks, their vital organs would be easily damaged during these fights. Blood is often drawn, however, and many male sea lions have battle scars due to these territorial competitions. Losers are dramatically chased far from their territory by the new dominant bull with much splashing.

Because there is only one male in each harem, there is always a surplus of “bachelor” male sea lions. They usually congregate fairly peaceably on less favorable areas of the coastline in “bachelor colonies”. One of the most commonly known is atop the cliffs of theSouth Plaza Island of the Galápagos chain. Because the dominant male of the harem cannot feed while defending his colony, he eventually becomes too tired and weak, and is overpowered by a well-nourished, fresh bull.

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