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Ocean Life: California Sea Lion - Characteristics

Photo of a sea lion on rocks overlooking the sea
A California sea lion rests on the rocks
(courtesy of Dan Costa, UCSC)

There are 34 species of Pinnipeds, the "wing" or "fin-footed" mammals, which include 14 species of eared seals. The California sea lion belongs to the family Otariidae which means "little ears". There are two geographically separate subspecies of California sea lion recognized: Zalophus californianus californianus, which is found off the west coast of North America, and Zalophus californianus wollebaeki, which lives in the Galapagos Islands in the Central Pacific Ocean. A third subspecies, Zalophus californianus japonicus once lived near Japan but is now thought to be extinct. In the scientific community, there are many debates concerning the ancestry of eared seals. It is believed that eared seals and walrus' descended from a bear-like ancestor that returned to the sea 30 million years ago in the North Pacific.


The California sea lion is the playful, noisy, exuberant, quick learning,"trained seal" of the circus and zoo. It has a streamlined body, a thick layer of blubber and short, thick fur with typical coloring ranges from tan to chocolate brown and may appear black when wet. Males, bulls, are darker and bigger than females. Males may reach 1,000 lbs. (more often 850 lbs., or 390 kg) and 7 feet (2.1 m) in length. Females, cows, are considerably smaller and grow to 220 lbs. (110 kg) and up to 6 feet (1.8 m) in length. Pups are about 75 cm long and weigh 13-20 lbs. (6-9 kg). The head has a pointed muzzle and the profile resembles that of a dog.


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