Whisker Patrol is part of a Western Australian State Natural Resource Management Program Community Grant. It is a community-based project targeting on-the-ground natural resource management at a local level in the form of facilitating research on Australian sea lions. Whisker Patrol aims to develop a methodology for photo-identifying individual Australian sea lions and testing its effectiveness through a community-based approach. If the method is successful, it will provide a non-invasive technique which can be used to follow individual sea lions, allowing researchers to better study this endemic Australian species.
A key aspect of Whisker Patrol is understanding more about individual Australian sea lions, not just the population as a whole. To do so, we need to identify individual animals, so we can start to understand their habitat use, behaviour and movement patterns, in addition to discovering more about population demographics and species distribution.
Some animals, like tigers, zebras, leopards and whalesharks have unique spots or stripes. Others, like dolphins, have scars or nicks at certain body parts which can be used to identify an individual. The identification can then be done by comparing photographs with previous sightings. However, sea lions do not have unique fur marks, and scars are often obscured by fur, and change over time with their molts. They also change their fur colour when maturing. So far, sea lions have to be marked for individual identification. Most of the times this means that an animal needs to be captured or sedated to apply a mark – for example, by using older methods such as hot-brands, or newer methods like plastic tags and micro-chips!
In the Whisker Patrol project, we want to discover if Australian sea lions possess unique natural markings. If they do then scientists can begin to build a catalogue of individual animals, allowing us to follow each sea lion over time.
In this project, we wil be investigating whether whisker spot patterns vary significantly across individuals in a population and can be used to identify individual sea lions. Whisker spots have been successfully used in lions and polar bears to identify individuals, but for sea lions no such method has been developed. Preliminary work conducted by the proponents of this project based on Australian sea lion photos collected from participating zoos and aquaria (as part of an AMMC project) indicate that known individuals from a small sample size can be readily identified by their whisker spot patterns.
But we now need to test this at a larger scale and we need to know whether photos taken by the community could help us track sea lions! To do this we would like to expand the study to include photographs taken by the community from animals in the wild. But to do this, we need plenty of photos of sea lions! This is where you can help!
How you can help
If you have appropriate photos you have taken of wild Australian sea lions it would be a great contribution to the project if you share them with us. Please have a look at the Get Involved! section for details on photo requirements, as well as information on how to upload your photos!
Important notice: These Australian sea lions are wild and powerful animals, which might carry tuberculosis. Please keep a minimum distance of 10m to sea lions and follow the guidelines for sea lion viewing by DPaW!