much more than a weird wet dog

Last name: Australian Sea Lion (Neophoca cinerea)

Band: Marine mammals

Cut: Length 2-2.5 meters, weight up to about 100 kg (females) or 250 kg (males)

Diet: Carnivores, eating a variety of demersal fish, elasmobranchs (rays), lobsters, cephalopods (squid, cuttlefish, octopus) and gastropods

Habitat: Australia’s South Coast including WA and SA

Conservation state: Endangered

Superpower: Australian sea lions are the only seal that does not breed annually, instead meeting every 17.5 months.

Australian Sea Lions on Kangaroo Island, South Australia. Credit: Marc Dozier / The Image Bank / Getty Images.

The Australian sea lion is the only pinniped, or seal, found exclusively in Australia. Many people can tell stories of a friendly encounter with a sea lion in the water and the agility, curiosity and playfulness of these sea mammals.

Australian sea lions can appear as large, docile and clumsy dogs when resting on islands between foraging forays, but if approached they can move quickly on land and inflict a nasty bite s ‘they’re threatened – living up to their leonine name. They like to eat prized and highly palatable species of fish, including lobster and salmon, which puts them in direct competition with humans.

Adult male sea lions in good breeding condition have pigeon breasts and can weigh more than a few hundred kilograms. They sport a blond mane on the top of their head which contrasts sharply with their dark coat. Males are especially protective in breeding colonies, guarding their mates early in the breeding season.

Photograph of three Australian sea lions on the beach a small adult male with golden back and an adult female
A baby Australian sea lion, adult male and adult female. Credit: Holly Raudino.

Female sea lions, also called “cows”, often return to breed on the island where they were born. If a pup is approached or threatened while its mother is at sea feeding, a cow will defend the pup, even if it’s not hers!

Puppies are born dark brown, with large, endearing, watery, wide eyes. Their coat lightens within a few months, becoming a light silvery gray when fully molted. Puppies are usually weaned after several months, although there are nursing records for 18 months.

If life consisted only of feeding and breeding, some might think that the sea lion, especially the males, leads an idyllic and enchanted life. However, not all is well for Australian sea lions. They reach sexual maturity quickly, with females breeding between 4 and 6 years of age, but their unusual breeding cycle, strong loyalty to their home islands, and differences in breeding timing between different islands have likely inhibited their population growth. .

Photo of a baby Australian sea lion sleeping on rocks
A dozing Australian sea lion baby. Credit: Holly Raudino.

Australian sea lions can also be captured, injured or drowned during interactions with the fishing industry. They are further threatened by the decline of their prey species, harassment on their breeding islands, and parasites such as hookworms. Fortunately, drugs to combat the hookworm problem in South Australian sea lion colonies are showing encouraging results.

Although a flagship and charismatic species, the latest population figures for the Australian sea lion are concerning, with the population having declined by more than 60% in 40 years. The species was unfortunately classified as endangered under our national legislation, the EPBC Act, at the end of 2020.

This species is far more unique than a weird wet dog and it’s a marine mammal that deserves your vote!

We all love birds, but why should our feathered friends have fun? This winter, join Cosmos in celebrating the incredible diversity of Australian mammals, from the antechinus to the yellow-legged wallaby, in our first-ever Australian Mammal of the Year poll.

Keep an eye on the Cosmos website or subscribe to our mailing list for new items about awesome Australian mammal species every week. You can even nominate your own favorite Australian mammal using the form below!

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