Hair dye helping sea lion conservation

Human hair dye is being used on Australian sea lions at Carnac and Seal Islands off the coast of Perth to track and learn about the local population.

Edith Cowan University (ECU) is jointly leading this innovative project with Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) marine researchers, in collaboration with Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD).

The Australian sea lion project forms part of the Western Australian Marine Science Institution’s Westport Marine Science Program.

“The hair dye marks are temporary and safe,” said ECU Associate Professor Chandra Salgado Kent said. “They enable us to identify each sea lion and monitor how often they move amongst six haul-out islands, such as Carnac Island and Seal Island.“

“This project also enables monitoring of the total numbers that occur in the Perth metropolitan area when the animals are at their peak numbers around December or January,” she said.

The marking method, which has been applied to other species of seals and sea lions elsewhere, is non-invasive, with minimal disruption. A layer of dye is spread on foam numbers. These are mounted on a plate attached to a long pole, which is then pressed onto the sea lion’s back or side.

Tagging a sleeping sea lion. The marking method takes less time than a trip to the hairdresser, it is safe and non-invasive. Photo credit: Edith Cowen University

The expert team, which includes DBCA, ECU, and ANU researchers, DBCA and Werribee Open Range Zoo wildlife veterinarians, and DBCA and DPIRD marine rangers and wildlife officers, is also using satellite tags as temporary tracking devices.

“We’re trying to figure out how many sea lions use the area and where they might be foraging,” explained Kelly Waples of the DBCA.

Understanding which habitats are important will help researchers better understand how to manage and protect this endangered species, which has seen a 60 per cent decline in numbers over the last 40 years. Watch the video here.