Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Play the Game: How to Tell the Difference Between Seals and Sea Lions

Really think about it, if you were walking along the beach as the sun was going down and saw a marine mammal in the distance, would you be able to identify it? It is okay if you are quietly saying to yourself, "no," I am going to help with that!

I have created a matching game. I am going to introduce different marine mammals that look very similar to each other and provide information about how to identify them, life history, and some fun stories and facts. I will post pictures at the bottom and you must see if you can guess the correct species! Next month, I will post the answers along with a new set of species, so make sure you check back and see if you got it right! Come summer, you will all be experts at identifying marine mammals!  

A little information about marine mammals:

Marine mammals are mammals that live in the marine environment for the majority of their lives. These mammals get their food from the ocean and their water from their food. We have over 31 species of marine mammals that call the Pacific North West home. So let’s jump right in and learn about them!

Week 1: Seals vs Sea Lion

Do you think you know the difference between a seal and a sea lion? What key characteristics would you look for to tell them apart?

Our seals and sea lions are fin-footed carnivorous marine mammals within the suborder Pinnipedia (meaning “wing-foot” or “feather-foot”). This suborder, which includes Seals (Family: Phocids), Sea Lions (Family: Otariids) and Walruses (Family: Odobenidae), have the widest distribution of any other suborder and inhabit all the oceans. Pinnipeds main sources of food are fish and squid, however some will eat mollusks, crustaceans and much larger prey.

Photo from National Geographic 1987
So how can you tell them apart?

There are a couple of noticeable differences between Seals and Sea Lions. When I am differentiating between the two, I focus on two characteristics: their flippers and their ears. 

The forelimbs of sea lions are longer and more developed than those of seals. They use them to move through the water and to prop themselves up and move quickly on land. Another noticeable characteristic is that their hind flippers can rotate forward. In contrast, a seal uses its hind flippers when propelling through the water, cannot prop themselves up, are awkward when moving on land, and cannot rotate their hind flippers forward.  

Another way to differentiate between the two would be by observing their ears. Sea lions have external ear flaps where true seals do not. This is not something you would see unless you were standing over a dead individual or you had binoculars. Never go up to a seal or sea lion to see if it has ear flaps or not, I promise you, it will not end well.

From "Guide to Marine Mammals of Alaska" Kate Wynne

Below you can see some other characteristic differences between the two species:

Now that you have all the information do you think you can tell them apart? 

Who am I? 
Who am I?
Who am I? 
Who are we?
I am going to start off easy, just so that you can focus on noticing the differences. Don’t worry, the pictures will get more difficult. You can put your answers in the comment section below so I can see who gets them right! 

KATIE CONROY is the Marine Mammal Stranding Educator and an AmeriCorps member serving at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.  


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