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Sea lion? Take a snap to help Curtin research

Media release

Taken a snap of a sea lion? Upload it to www.whiskerpatrol.org and you can help Curtin University marine biologists test a method for identifying and tracking the animals by their whiskers.

Curtin researchers are calling for photos of sea lions to help study whisker spot patterns (Credit: Sylvia Osterrieder)

The new project, Whisker Patrol, aims to collect a large number of good quality photographs of Australian sea lions to examine whether whisker spot patterns vary significantly across individuals and if they can be used as an identification tool for science research.

Dr Chandra Salgado Kent, senior research fellow at Curtin’s Centre for Marine Science and Technology, said while the species is listed as endangered, little had been done on tracking individuals over long periods in Western Australia as the animals lacked unique spots or stripes.

“Scars are often obscured by fur and change over time with moults and fur colour also changes when maturing,” Dr Salgado Kent said.

“Currently, to study them at an individual level over multiple breeding cycles, sea lions have to be marked, which means they would need to be captured and sedated to apply a mark such as a micro-chip.”

Sylvia Osterrieder, research associate at Curtin’s Centre for Marine Science and Technology said in the Whisker Patrol project, the team wanted to discover if the animals possessed unique natural markings from their whisker patterns.

“But to test this method on a large scale, we need plenty of photos of sea lions and the community to pull out their cameras when they see one in the wild and send us their snaps via the website,” Ms Osterrieder said.

“When helping us, remember to maintain a distance of 10 metres from sea lions as listed in Department of Parks and Wildlife guidelines – while they are cute and cuddly, they are wild animals.

“If this method is successful, then scientists can begin to build a catalogue of individual animals, providing a non-invasive technique which can be used to better study the endemic Australian species.”

Dr Salgado Kent said studying Australian sea lions at an individual level would help scientists start to understand their habitat use, behaviour and movement patterns, in addition to discovering more about population demographics and species distribution.

She said whisker spots had been successfully used in lions and polar bears to identify individuals but no such method had been developed for sea lions.

Australian sea lions are found only in Australia and nowhere else in the world.

This project was funded as part of a Western Australian State Natural Resource Management Program Community Grant.