Estimating diet composition in sea lions: which technique to choose?

D.J. Tollit, Susan Gale Heaslip, B.E. Deagle, S.J. Iverson, R. Joy, D.A.S Rosen, A.W. Trites

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Reliable estimates of diets are vital to monitor impacts of sea lion populations on their ecosystems and their interactions with fisheries, and to understand the role of food to animal nutrition and health. Approaches include using (1) prey remnants in stomach contents, spews and scats; (2) prey DNA in scats; (3) fatty acid signatures in blubber; and (4) stable isotope ratios in predator's tissue. Each methodology has particular advantages and limitations, many of which can be assessed and improved through controlled captive feeding trials. Analysis of prey remnants from captive sea lion scats have shown significant variability in digestion between and within prey species, which, coupled with preferential regurgitation and enumeration biases, can confound accurate diet quantification, but does not prevent spatial or temporal comparisons. Correction for partial digestion and use of additional structures besides otoliths can provide reliable prey size estimates. Prey DNA can be consistently isolated from soft remains in scats from captive sea lions, and with further development this approach may allow quantification of diet. Genetic methods can be expensive and representative of only one to two days foraging (like prey remnant analysis), but may be less affected by differential digestion and can identify prey in scats that could not be identified through structural remnants. Validation of fatty acid signature analysis to quantify diet at longer temporal scales in sea lions is ongoing. This new technique promises to be particularly useful to assess biases in traditional methods, identify the onset of weaning, and highlight the prey that most contribute to lipid reserves. Stable isotope analysis of predator tissues gives only trophic level data, but can provide data on diet changes on many temporal scales. Remote video monitoring of foraging events and lavage/enema techniques can provide valuable diet information, but, like many newer techniques, animal capture is required. Ideally a suite of techniques should be used to study diet. While methods and correction factors developed for Steller sea lions can likely be applied to the other five sea lion species, they should be verified experimentally.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSea Lions of the World
EditorsA.W. Trites, S. Atkinson, D.P. DeMaster, L.W. Fritz, T.S. Gelatt, L.D. Rea, K. Wynne
PublisherAlaska Sea Grant College Program
ISBN (Print)156612-105-1
Publication statusPublished - 2006


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