Fatal attraction: Satellites to determine sea lions deaths

July 20, 2001

GALVESTON - It could be a classic tabloid headline off a supermarket shelf - "The Autopsy from Outer Space" - except that it's true, and it could go a long way in solving a big marine mystery.

Texas A&M University at Galveston researcher Markus Horning has received a grant to implant radio transmitters on sea lions to determine how they lived, and more importantly, how they died. The results could prove critical in determining why sea lions - especially steller sea lions - are dying out so quickly that they are becoming an endangered species.

Horning and fellow researcher Jo-Ann Mellish will use $1.7 million in grants to track and monitor steller sea lions, the largest of all sea lions that can weigh up to 2,000 pounds. The lumbering creatures, who once thrived in the waters off the Alaskan coast, now face possible extinction. In some areas, 75 percent of all stellers have disappeared.

While as many as 100,000 of the animals once roamed part of the Bering Sea, now as few as 25,000 inhabit parts of those waters.

"We want to find out why," says Horning.

"There are several possible reasons, including overfishing in the area, which takes away from the stellers' primary food source, or there might be some environmental reasons. Whatever the case, we hope to find some answers."

Horning and Mellish will implant the radio transmitters inside some stellers, then set them free. Each transmitter will store data and transmit the information to a satellite after the animal has died, which could take 15 to 20 years or just a few months.

"We know that about 75 of every 100 juvenile stellers - the young ones - don't live very long," Horning reports. "We want to know why."

The transmitters - about 8 inches long and 2 inches wide - could literally be a lifesaver for the species, Horning believes.

The device will serve as a sort of sea lion log book. It will record information on how the animal lived, areas it frequented, when it died and what it did before it died.

When the animal has died, the information from the transmitter will be retrieved from the satellite and hopefully reveal some answers.

"It will have recorded information about the steller's entire life span," Horning explains.

"This is information that could prove vital. If we know what it did before it died, we probably can get a pretty good picture of how it died and the reasons for it dying. If we can find out the answers to those questions, it could go a long way in helping us determine how we can save the animal in future years."

In Alaska, there are two types of steller sea lions. One is the Eastern stock, whose population has remain relatively stable. The other is the Western stock, whose numbers are quickly dwindling, and no one seems to know why.

"All we do know is that three-fourths of the stellers have died out," Horning adds.

"These transmitters may provide us with the answers we need. As far as we know, this is the first attempt like this to determine how sea lions have died. If we can get some good information on how they died, we can develop ways to save future generations."
-end-
Contact: Markus Horning at 409-740-4541

Randall

7/20/01

Texas A&M University

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