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Researcher spending winter with sea lions

Two seasoned biologists are set to live for one year amongst 600 Steller sea lions on a small remote island in Alaska as part of Project "Steller Watch," reports the North Pacific Universities Marine Mammal Research Consortium.

Researcher Michelle Marcotte and her assistants are settling in for a long winter in Frederick Sound, Alaska. They recently constructed a one-room hut on Sea Lion Island (one of the Brothers Islands) to observe sea lions for the next 12 months. Sea Lion Island is home to the largest year-round colony of Steller sea lions in Southeast Alaska, and is a perfect place to watch their every movement.

Marcotte has two primary goals. The first is to monitor and validate an automated self-contained time-lapse photography system that has been developed by SciFish in Anchorage.

The camera system is designed to have minimum impact on the environment and can sustain severe climate and interference from insects, birds, mammals and weather. The camera can take photos at any specified interval. A separate system uses night vision to capture nighttime

The camera system may ultimately be installed at rookeries and haulouts throughout Alaska to remotely monitor Steller sea lion numbers.

The second major goal is to document daily and seasonal haulout patterns to shed additional light on foraging patterns, population trends, disturbance effects, and the reliability of aerial survey counts. The study will also attempt to determine the proportion of nursing sea lions and establish the exact timing of weaning.

Behavioral observations are made daily from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and consist of half hour counts and 15 minute scans for individually recognizable animals to record behaviors and associations. The population consists of between 500 and 600 animals, and contains many one-, two-, and three-year-olds.

Sea Lion Island is very small, with no fresh water or resident mammals (other than the sea lions and two biologists), and it only takes about 20 minutes to walk around the entire island. Fortunately there are an abundance of plants, some beautiful mature trees, and several species of birds including oyster catchers, pigeon guillemots, bald eagles and ravens to distract the research team. There have also been a number of humpback and killer whales nearby.

Just who will stick it out with the biologists and sea lions for the entire winter remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, though: There
will be two sets of eyes—and two lenses intently watching.

The study is being funded by the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation Inc. through the North Pacific Marine Science Foundation under permits issued by NOAA and the USDA Forestry Service.

[Read more at Marine Mammal News]

North Pacific Universities Marine Mammal Research Consortium | Posted 10.25.04 at 5:29 am

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