Whether you know them as sea lions or 'puppies of the sea', these charismatic and playful creatures share a lengthy history with humans. From being worshipped by the ancient Moche civilisation of Peru to facing commercial hunting for their hides during the 1800s, the relationship between sea lions and humans has had its ups and downs over the past 7,000 years. Fortunately, in the present day, all sea lions are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, with some also listed under the Endangered Species Act.
If you're interested in learning more about these amazing creatures, then read on to discover our top ten sea lion facts.
1. Sea Lions Are Mammals
Given the 'lion' part of their name, this sea lion fact might seem self-explanatory. Specifically, sea lions are marine mammals. Marine mammals are mammals that live most or all of their lives in or close to the ocean. This diverse group includes the likes of whales, dolphins, manatees and even polar bears. All of these creatures, including sea lions, are warm-blooded, breathe air through their lungs, produce milk for their young and have hair at some point in their lives (including whales and dolphins!).
2. There’s More Than One Species of Sea Lion
There are currently six species of sea lions spanning five genera. This includes the Californian (Zalophus californianus), Stellar (Eumetopias jubatus), Australian (Neophoca cinerea), Galapagos (Zalophus wollebaeki), New Zealand (Phocarctos hookeri) and South American (Otaria flavescens) sea lion.
Up until recently, there was a seventh, the Japanese sea lion, however, this sea pup species sadly went extinct in the 1950s.
3. Sea Lions Are Not Seals
While they look similar, sea lions are not seals. Belonging to the same suborder known as Pinnipedia, sea lions, seals, fur seals, and walruses share a common classification as 'pinnipeds', derived from the Latin words for fin or flipper-footed. Despite this commonality, there are some noticeable differences.
With walruses it's simple: look out for the tusks. However, to distinguish between seals and sea lions, you'll need to look a little harder. Sea lions have little ears (seals only have ear holes), longer flippers and are generally a lot rowdier than their seal counterparts.
4. Sea Lions Are Not Fur Seals
When it comes to distinguishing between sea lions and fur seals, it gets a little tricker. Unlike seals, fur seals have small ears and long flippers, just like sea lions. The resemblance is so pronounced that fur seals fall under the same family as sea lions (Otariidae), rather than seals (Phocidae). At a glance, you could easily mix up the two, but subtle differences in the way they look and act can help tell them apart.
Take, for instance, the case of the Galapagos Islands, where both Galapagos fur seals and Galapagos sea lions reside. While both have long fins and external ears, fur seals have thicker coats and shorter snouts. Fur seals also favour shady nooks, while sea lions prefer lounging in the sun.
5. Sea Lions Are Social Creatures
Sea lions are extremely social, living in colonies that can have thousands of members. To outsiders, it might seem chaotic, but there is a semblance of structure in the form of subgroups.
These subgroups are smaller groups within the larger colony, each with their own hierarchy. An individual can move between subgroups several times during their life, depending on factors like gender, age and standing within the larger colony.
6. Sea Lions Avoid One Place...
Sea lions have managed to establish themselves almost everywhere, yet a truly peculiar sea lion fact among our top ten is their notable absence from the Northern Atlantic. Sea lions can be found in the Northern Pacific, all along the western coast of North America, extending to Eastern Russia and, before the extinction of Japanese sea lions, Japan. Not forgetting the southwest of Australia, New Zealand and the southern and western stretches of South America.
However, despite having compatible temperatures and plenty of food, there are no sea lions in the Northern Atlantic - the jury is still out on why this is.
7. Sea Lions Age Like Humans
Just like humans, sea lions become increasingly vulnerable to a wide range of health issues as they get older. Depending on the species, sea lions can reach 20 years of age in the wild. However, as they age, they can become susceptible to conditions like cancer, pneumonia and epilepsy.
8. Sea Lions Are Expert Freedivers
As you'd expect, sea lions are brilliant at holding their breath. Some sea lions can even hold their breath for up to 20 minutes, putting Alexey Molchanov, the world's best freediver, to shame. Equipped with specially adapted nostrils capable of sealing shut underwater, they can dive to astonishing depths between 135 and 272 metres. This is possible because they have a high tolerance for carbon dioxide, which enables their bodies to effectively manage the balance between carbon dioxide and oxygen.
9. They May Be Cute, but Sea Lions Are Born Hunters
Sea lions are natural predators with a varied diet, including fish, crabs, octopuses and squid. To help them catch their prey, they have a wide variety of adaptations.
Sporting streamlined bodies and powerful flippers, they can zip through the water at speeds of up to 25 to -30 miles per hour. Their whiskers are also extremely sensitive, helping them detect nearby prey when visibility is poor. Lastly, sea lions have between 34 and 38 large conical teeth which they use to catch, hold and tear their prey apart.
10. Sea Lions Like Land and Water
Unlike dolphins and whales, sea lions split their time between land and sea. Yet, unlike seals, sea lions can hoist their bodies from the ground and walk on their flippers - they can even run if they need to.
Since sea lions hunt in the sea, it's not feasible for them to spend all their time on land. Nevertheless, they still spend quite a lot of time on land for specific purposes like moulting, breeding and raising their pups. Males have been recorded spending up to 27 days on land to defend their territory, while females may remain on land for up to ten days after giving birth.