Identifying sea lions by whisker pattern?

Photo by Kelli O'Brien

Photo by Kelli O’Brien

As a zoo keeper, it is a privilege to participate in scientific studies that will aid conservation efforts for the animals we care so much about. One of these studies we have dubbed the “Whisker Patrol.” A sea lions’ whiskers are actually called vibrissae, but you get the idea.

If a researcher wants to study wild populations of seals or sea lions, they need a way to identify individuals. At present, this usually includes capture of the animal for tagging, collaring or branding. While this certainly makes the animal recognizable and easier to track, it is extremely stressful for the animal. Not only is this unfortunate for the seal or sea lion, but it also runs the risk of altering the natural behavior researchers are trying to study.

In the project, keepers at the Seneca Park Zoo are helping to prove the efficacy of a less invasive form of identification. By taking detailed pictures of our sea lions’ whisker spot patterns at different angles several times over a two-year period and sending these pictures to a researcher in Australia, we add to a bank of photographs from zoos and aquariums all over the world. The researcher will then analyze these photographs of whisker spot patterns to determine whether they stay consistent over time.

So what makes whisker spot patterns so important? They may be the key to a much easier and less stressful way to study wild seal and sea lion populations. If scientists can identify individuals through their unique whisker spot patterns, they can be done with the stressful capture of wild seals and sea lions for tagging or branding and exchange this technique for the a simple snap of the camera. I’m sure you can imagine how much less stressful this is for everyone involved. We have good reason to hope for the success of this technique, as it has already been successful in studying other wild animals such as lions.

So that is why every six months or so, you may see myself and some other keepers out on the beach playing paparazzi with our sea lions. They may not know it, by our wonderful sea lions are helping their cousins all over the world.

– Laura Shipp, zoo keeper