Sites and Critters

Sea Lions as urban megafauna

Sea Lion pup in restaurant booth (c) Mike Aguilera

Sea Lion pup in restaurant booth (c) Mike Aguilera

The owners of the “Marine Room” restaurant in San Diego were certainly in for a surprise this morning, after an eight-month old sea lion pup found her way into their establishment overnight and decided to set up shop. She was quite obviously grumpy when a marine mammal rescue team arrived to take her away (right). You can read the full story and see the video of her deportation here from the LA Times.

(c) The Cave Store

(c) The Cave Store

Oddly enough, this was not the first strange sea lion encounter in San Diego this year. Back in January, another California Sea Lion pup (left) climbed up 145 steps from the beach below to colonize a gift shop in La Jolla; the desperado allegedly would only vacate the premises upon being bribed with salmon. In addition, this young sea lion decided to hitch a ride with a random paddle boarder near the Coronado Bridge back in October, though no ransom was reported for the high jacking:

If you’re thinking to yourself: ‘Why on Earth are sea lion pups moving into restaurants and gift shops?’ you’re not alone. Representatives from Sea World suggest that high tides and high sea surface temperatures associated with El Niño have reduced the food supply for California Sea Lions. Indeed, coastal areas in the Pacific have experienced abnormally warm temperatures as of late, and a recent paper from Bernardo Shirasago-Germán and colleagues in Mexico highlights that pups and young adults are particularly vulnerable to environmental fluctuations like higher sea surface temperatures. But further science on the matter has yet to hit the primary literature as far as I can tell. While the pup who found her way into the restaurant last night was apparently tiny for her age, it’s not clear to me whether her journey, and that of her gift shop- and paddleboard-invading comrades can be effectively linked to climate-induced food shortages.

(c) Takashi Hososhima

(c) Takashi Hososhima

Marine mammals may well serve as the canary in the coal mine for large-scale ecological changes in the ocean, but perhaps a different species would be a better representative for such an important task… one that’s not inherently so curious and unruly. California Sea Lions have lived and interacted with humans in heavily urban areas for as long as I can remember. When I was a girl, they took over a popular tourist destination in San Francisco and have remained in charge there ever since (left). In Seattle, they do just as they please on the buoys and barges operated by the port (at the top of this post). And when I’m underwater, they generally seem quite keen to make their presence known (below).

Perhaps it’s best to think of them like other urban wildlife, such as raccoons and coyotes – natural in a sense, but there in large part because of their ability to thrive in dense urban centers. This is all conjecture, of course, as much work would be needed to confirm whether California Sea Lions are indeed the type of generalist consumer the has adapted to urban life. Just something to ponder next time a sea lion wanders into your neighborhood coffee shop or corner market.

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