This week I’ll tell you a little about Steller sea lion reproductive behavior and biology.
Steller sea lions use both haul-outs and rookeries. Rookeries are breeding colonies where sea lions mate, and females give birth; and haul-outs are areas where sea lions rest. Rookeries are used during the mating and pupping season by adults and pups. Haul-outs are sites used by some non-breeding adults and sub-adults throughout the year and by adults during times other than the breeding season.
Female Steller sea lions reach sexual maturity between the ages of three and six, and most breed every year. Males are sexually mature between the ages of three and seven, but they are not physically mature and large and strong enough to hold territories until they are nine to ten years old. Male Stellers are very territorial, and holding and defending a territory is physically exhausting. Not only must they sometimes engage in fierce, often bloody, fighting with other bulls, but a male often goes without eating for one to two months while he stays on the rookery to defend his territory. Because of these exhaustive physical demands, males hold territories for an average of only two years, which means they only have a few mating seasons. It is probable that most males never breed, but the largest, strongest, most successful bulls are those that hold territories, and they mate with many females, passing on their genes to the next generation.
Bulls come ashore at rookeries in mid-May, and they use vocal and visual displays to establish territories, sometimes fighting with other males. Bulls defending a territory will remain on the rookery until mid-July without eating or drinking. Females arrive soon after the males and give birth to a single pup within three days of their arrival. Females remain with their pups for five to thirteen days before leaving the rookery every one to three days to feed, and feeding trips generally last less than 24 hours. Pups usually nurse for one year, but unlike other pinnipeds for which weaning is predictable, Steller pups may continue to nurse for up to three years. Mothers use smell and vocalizations to create a bond with a newborn pup.
Approximately two weeks after giving birth, a female Steller will mate again. Like many other animals, Steller sea lions exhibit delayed implantation. While a female breeds in June, the fertilized egg does not implant on the uterine wall until October, making the gestation period, from implantation until birth, approximately seven to eight months. Pups are able to swim and crawl soon after they are born. They are approximately 3.3 ft. (1 m) in length and weigh between 35 and 50 lbs. (16-22.5 kg).
Next week’s post will cover some surprising new research about Steller sea lions and a possible predator that may be at least partially responsible for the decrease in Steller populations in the North Pacific.
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