Last Friday afternoon (2/15/2013), a sea lion washed up onto the rocks in Sitka Sound. Soon after, a group of Alaska scientists set out to investigate what happened.
Kaili Jackson is at the University of Alaska dock in Sitka with a small team of scientists and helpers dissecting a female Steller’s sea lion. It was found dead just a few days earlier near the airport in Sitka by a Dept. of Transportation contractor, whose job it is to keep birds away from the runway so it’s safe for planes to land.
Jackson takes a small, serrated knife that looks like a one you’d cut a tomato with, and makes a couple of short incisions — about three inches long — into the mammal’s blubber. After samples are collected, she and her team slice a little deeper and peel back the thick flesh from its abdomen.
“So, Kaili just found out that she’s lactating…so that means she was either pregnant or had just given birth…”
And there it is.
“Awwww look at the little baby flippers…it already has claws. That is amazing. whiskers and everything. it was so close.”
Based on the time of year and how big the baby was, Jackson guesses the sea lion was a couple of weeks from giving birth. She says February is when she starts getting calls about baby sea lions that don’t survive after they’re born.
Jackson works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. She’s with the Marine Mammal Stranding Network. She says her job is to respond to dead animals reported in Alaska, and then try to figure out how they died by doing a necropsy.
“So far I haven’t seen any signs of trauma or anything like that,” said Jackson. “Carrying a baby is a pretty taxing process, so it could have just been too much for her, I’m not sure.”
Because there aren’t any obvious clues as to what killed the sea lion, the team will collect samples of all the tissue and send them to a pathologist in Anchorage. They’ll also freeze the fetus and send it to the pathologist for its own necropsy.
“It’s a good way to collect data that is otherwise unavailable to us,” said Jackson. “It’s also a good way to find out if there’s something going on in the environment to be aware of that’s making animals sick, a good indicator that something is wrong.”
When Jackson examined contents in the esophogus, she found a thin, pointed claw-like object that could be the cause of death.
“…What is that? Is that shrimp? No, it’s a, I would say a crab claw. Was that stuck in there? Get a picture of it. Where was it? It was in the esophagus. That could explain thoracic flu. It’s worth collecting that sucker. I just pulled it out of the esophagus. Is it a stingray… spine? It could have caused it to get fluid in its lungs…pneumonia.”
It isn’t clear yet what killed the sea lion, but by bringing in more experts to examine the clues, researchers hope to learn this animal’s story, and how it contributes to our own.