HCNSO Student Theses and Dissertations

Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

M.S. Coastal Zone Management


Oceanographic Center

First Advisor

Caryn Self-Sullivan

Second Advisor

Edward O. Keith

Third Advisor

Curtis M. Burney

Fourth Advisor

Garet Lahvis



California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) health is severely compromised by domoic acid toxicosis, which occurs in high levels during harmful algal blooms of Pseudonitzschia australis along the coast of California. Current diagnostic protocols are often inconclusive due to a 2-48 hour window of detectability within the urinary, circulatory, and gastric systems (Cook, et al. 2011 and Monte, Pers Comm, 2012). Past studies suggest that Z. californianus, with domoic acid toxicosis, commonly display abnormal behaviors (Goldstein, et al. 2008). However, many of these abnormal behaviors are also associated with other diagnoses and are therefore unreliable as diagnostic indicators. This study fills in a knowledge gap relating to abnormal behavior types and their correlation to domoic acid toxicosis and helps solve the problem of current, inconclusive, diagnostic protocols. In this study, my objectives were to identify abnormal behaviors correlated to domoic acid toxicosis, create a diagnostic ethogram, determine the applicability of the method in the field, and determine the applicability of triage based on the relationship between abnormal behaviors and domoic acid levels.


I conducted focal animal continuous scans (continuous observation of a single animal at a time, for a set period) with continuous data entry, on animals admitted to the Marine Mammal Center (main study location during 2011-2013) and the Marine Mammal Care Center (comparison location, 2013). I conducted my observations from behind a blind to prevent both human habituation and behavioral influence of the observer. Observations lasted between 10-15 minutes (10 minutes per pen in 2011, 15 minutes per animal in 2012-2013). Subjects were selected based on an admit date no later than 7 days from the observation date.

I conducted focal animal continuous scans at Pier 39, a haul out location, in the San Francisco Bay. Animals included in the study had identifying marks or were isolated from other animals (making them easy to identify). I observed animals once per observation day with a total observation period not exceeding 15 minutes per animal.

I logged domoic acid levels in feces, urine, and serum (collected by veterinary staff and analyzed with liquid chromatography and bioassays for the presence of domoic acid). I then compared these results to the types and severity of abnormal behaviors displayed by the domoic acid toxicosis sample.


Results from data collected at the Marine Mammal Center suggest that head weaving (Wilcoxon, p

Results from the Pier 39 study suggest that behavioral criteria may be applicable for ruling out domoic acid toxicosis in groups of animals. However, I did not test the method during times of harmful algal blooms. Therefore, the applicability of the method for use as a diagnostic tool in the field is unknown and further research is required.

Results for the triage study were inconclusive. The number of animals that tested positive for domoic acid was small and not suitable for statistical analysis. I suggest further research into triage abilities.


Based on the results of these studies, I can conclude that behavioral analysis offers a reliable diagnostic tool for rescued Z. californianus. Practitioners can use behavioral diagnostic criteria with confidence for the diagnosis of domoic acid toxicosis in Z. californianus.

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