Otaria flavescensSouth American sealion(Also: South American sea lion)

Geographic Range

Otaria flavescens inhabits South American coastlines from Rio de Janeiro (23 degrees south latitude) on the Atlantic ocean side and coastal Perú (5 degrees south latitude) on the Pacific coast to southernmost South America. There are records of Otaria flavescens inhabiting the Galapagos and Falkland Islands. (Arias-Schreiber and Rivas, 1998; Grzimek, 1990; MacDonald, 1985; Nowak, 1999; Ridgway and Harrison, 1981)


South American sea lions reside along shorelines and beaches. These beaches usually consist of sand, gravel, rocks, and/or pebbles. They also inhabit flat rocky shelves or cliffs with tidepools and boulders. (Campagna, et al., 1988a; Grzimek, 1990; MacDonald, 1985; Ridgway and Harrison, 1981)

Physical Description

South American sea lions (Otaria flavescens), also known as maned seals, are the most sexually dimorphic of the five known sea lion species. Males are approximately three times the size of females.

Adult males range from 2 to 2.5 meters in height and can weigh from 200 to 350 kilograms. The coat is dark brown on the dorsal side and dark yellow to gold on the ventral side. Males have a full mane, which is a paler color than the coat and a larger, more muscled neck than do females. A male's posture is usually upright, with the rostrum turned upward.

Adult females are much smaller in size and weight. They average 2 meters in height and can weigh from 140 to 150 kilograms, roughly half the average weight of an adult male. Their coats are also lighter in color relative to males. Coat color ranges from a fair brown to yellow with some pale markings around the head.

Pups do not exhibit this brown color until about a month after they are born. Neonates are greyish orange ventrally and black dorsally. This coat later turns to a dark chocolate brown color. Sexual dimorphism is shown in pups as well as in adults. According to a study in Peninsula Valdes, Argentina (Capposso et. al 1991), male pups averaged .82 meters in length and 13.7 kilograms in weight. In contrast, female pups averaged .79 meters in length and 12.3 kilograms in weight (Cappozzo, et al., 1991; Grzimek, 1990; MacDonald, 1985; Nowak, 1999; Ridgway and Harrison, 1981)

  • Range mass
    140 to 350 kg
    308.37 to 770.93 lb
  • Range length
    2 to 2.5 m
    6.56 to 8.20 ft


Otaria flavescens is known for its polygynous lifestyle. Mating season occurs from early August to December, when males defend territories aggressively and show interest in females. Mating behavior includes mutual vocalizations, snout and mouth contact, smelling, and playful biting. Territories for breeding grounds are usually on beaches of sand, pebbles, or flat rock. Males prevent females from leaving the beaches until they have mated.

Birth occurs from mid-December to early February in the year after mating, with the bulk of births during mid-January. The gestation period is about 11.75 months. There is typically one pup per birth, which averages .80 to .85 meters in length and 10 to 15 kilograms in weight. Male pups tend to be larger than females. However, since mothers seem to not show any gender-based nursing difference, the gender bias in parental investment occurs only during gestation. The heightened maternal investment in male offspring is important for their reproductive success, as size is important to males in establishing their mating territories.

Mothers fast for 5 to 7 days after giving birth in order to nurse their pup. Soon after giving birth mothers enter oestrus and mate again with the male in whose territory they have given birth. After mating, the mother leaves her pup behind to find food in the sea.

Since individuals mate and breed synchronously with hundreds of other sea lions, pups are protected from both predators and abduction when the mother is away, as they are not left "alone" on the beach. The simultaneous birthing system also promotes group bonding among pups.

There are some negative consequences to mass birthing also. It triggers the mother's aggression level toward other female sea lions in defense for her pup. Mothers return from their feeding trips in intervals to nurse their young. A female is able to locate her pup by first calling to it and finally identifying it by smell.

Sometimes a mother is separated from her pup and is not successful in finding it. This occurs as a result of several factors such as high tide, storms, male abductions, and inexperience of a young mother.

Pup mortality can range from 2 to 50%, depending on the size of the population. Larger populations experience higher pup mortality because of the greater risk of pups being trampled to death by adult sea lions. Pup mortality can be due to predators (such as pumas), diseases, parasites, drowning, subadult males, and starvation (when they lose their mothers).

Pups spend most of their time in groups or pods playing, sleeping, or residing near the water. They rarely swim into the deeper waters unless accompanied by their mothers. They typically first enter the water at about 3 to 4 weeks of age with other sea lions in a large group. They continue to nurse for about 6 to 12 months, until the mother gives birth to another pup. Even then, mothers have been known to nurse both pups simultaneously.

Male pups mature later than female pups. Male pups reach maturity at 6 years of age, whereas females mature at 4 years of age. Both sexes reach their full adult size around 8 years of age.

During development, mothers must be aware of group raids by invading males, who abduct their pups. These raids can take place at any time of the day or night but are correlated with the number of females in oestrus, their location, and the tide level. Raiding and abudction of pups may be timed to occur early during the female's oestrus, in order to attract mothers away from their terrritory for mating purposes. These raids may also signify strength and power. Some pups are killed by the males during raids. Mothers do not usually leave grounds and try to retrieve a pup if it is abducted. The mother is helpless in fighting the male because of his much larger size. Some researchers have suggested that males abduct pups to gain practice in controlling females during the mating season. (Campagna and Le Boeuf, 1988a; Campagna and Le Boeuf, 1988b; Campagna, et al., 1992; Campagna, et al., 1988a; Campagna, et al., 1988b; Cappozzo, et al., 1991; Grzimek, 1990; MacDonald, 1985; Nowak, 1999; Ridgway and Harrison, 1981; Vila and Cassini, 1990)

  • Breeding interval
    These animals breed annually.
  • Breeding season
    Mating occurs from August through February, at the time when pups are born and females return to estrus.
  • Average number of offspring
  • Average number of offspring
  • Average gestation period
    357 days
  • Range weaning age
    12 (high) months
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    3 to 4 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    6 (high) years
  • Parental Investment
  • precocial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female


The average lifespan of Southern American sea lions is 16 to 20 years. One captive sea lion, at the Valley Zoo, in Edmonton, Canada, is 30 years old (in 2008). (Grzimek, 1990; MacDonald, 1985; Nowak, 1999)


Otaria flavescens is a social, group living species. Groups usually consist of multiple females and one to several males who defend the territory. Males, called bulls, actively patrol their grounds, threaten intruders, and advertise their territorial boundaries through vocalizations. However, fights between the bull and any intruder are rare unless the intruder tries to take over the territory.

Fights are most prominent between two bulls during the initial phase of the breeding season. The number of fights between males increases as the number of females in heat increases. Bulls let out vocal grunts and attack each other by biting and tearing. During these fights, many pups are stepped upon and killed. Bulls may maintain their territories for 2 to 3 mating seasons before another bull takes over.

A bull's territory is highly dependent on the presence of cows rather than topological features or size. Each bull typically has 18 cows in his territory. Females tend to chose tidepool areas where temperature is not over 30 degrees Celsius. These thermoregulatory factors and topological features affect breeding behavior in females, and thus indirectly affect features of bull territories.

Young males who have not yet been able to obtain females usually live with other young males in groups of 10 to 40 individuals. Males in these groups attempt to raid established male territories in order to obtain females.

Otaria flavescens also shows behavioral responses to thermal changes. When the temperature gets too cold, these sea lions position their bodies so that mimimal surface area is exposed to the air. An individual may its belly and covering its forepaws. When it gets too warm, individuals may lie belly up with one hindfoot projected outwards. (Campagna, et al., 1988a; Campagna, et al., 1988b; Grzimek, 1990; MacDonald, 1985; Nowak, 1999; Ridgway and Harrison, 1981)

Communication and Perception

Food Habits

South American sea lions are carnivorous. They feed on fish, cephalopods, crustaceans, and other invertebrates depending on local abundance. These sea lions are typically found hunting in shallower waters, not more than five miles from shore. When looking for prey that travel in schools they hunt in groups. When they catch fish, they usually shake the prey in the air and then sometimes eat it whole. In addition, they have been observed eating penguins and female South American fur seals (Arctocephalus australis) and their pups. (Grzimek, 1990; Harcourt, 1992; Harcourt, 1993; MacDonald, 1985; Nowak, 1999; Ridgway and Harrison, 1981)

  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • mammals
  • fish
  • mollusks
  • aquatic crustaceans


Their predators include pumas, sharks, and killer whales. (Grzimek, 1990; MacDonald, 1985; Nowak, 1999; Grzimek, 1990; MacDonald, 1985; Nowak, 1999)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Until recently Otaria flavescens was hunted for its fur, meat, and oil. (Nowak, 1999)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

South American sea lions will steal fish from human fishing grounds by following fishing boats and stealing fish from the nets. (Ridgway and Harrison, 1981)

  • Negative Impacts
  • crop pest

Conservation Status

South American sea lions are not presently threatened. They experienced a large population decline during the past 70 years in the Falkland Islands. The reason for this abrupt decline is unknown.

Though they are not currently threatened, they are protected throughout most of their range.

The IUCN rates the species at "Lower Risk." (MacDonald, 1985; Nowak, 1999)

Other Comments

Otaria flavescens was previously known by the name Otaria byronia.

The ancestors of Southern American sea lions are from the Oligocene and Miocene era, about 25 million years ago. Enaliarctids are hypothesized to be the ancestors of these eared seals. (MacDonald, 1985; Rodriguez and Bastida, 1993)


Nancy Shefferly (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Sonia Liu (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Phil Myers (editor), Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.


Atlantic Ocean

the body of water between Africa, Europe, the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), and the western hemisphere. It is the second largest ocean in the world after the Pacific Ocean.

World Map


living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map

Pacific Ocean

body of water between the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), Australia, Asia, and the western hemisphere. This is the world's largest ocean, covering about 28% of the world's surface.

World Map

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


union of egg and spermatozoan

intertidal or littoral

the area of shoreline influenced mainly by the tides, between the highest and lowest reaches of the tide. An aquatic habitat.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


an animal that mainly eats fish


having more than one female as a mate at one time

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

sexual ornamentation

one of the sexes (usually males) has special physical structures used in courting the other sex or fighting the same sex. For example: antlers, elongated tails, special spurs.


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born


Arias-Schreiber, M., C. Rivas. 1998. Distribución, tamaño y estructura de loa poblaciones de lobos marinos (Arctocephalus australis y Otaria byronia) en el litoral peruano, en noviembre 1996 y marzo de 1997. Inf. Progr. Inst. Mar Perú, 73: 17-32.

Campagna, C., C. Bisioli, F. Quintana, F. Perez, A. Vila. 1992. Group breeding in sea lions: pups survive better in colonies. Animal Behaviour, 43: 541-548.

Campagna, C., B. Le Boeuf. 1988. Reproductive behavior of southern sea lions. Behaviour, 104(3-4): 233-261.

Campagna, C., B. Le Boeuf. 1988. Thermoregulatory behavior of southern sea lions and its effects on mating strategies. Behaviour, 107(1-2): 72-90.

Campagna, C., B. Le Boeuf, H. Capposso. 1988. Group raids: a mating strategy of male southern sea lions. Behaviour, 105(3-4): 224-249.

Campagna, C., B. Le Boeuf, H. Cappozzo. 1988. Pup abduction and infanticide in southern sea lions. Behaviour, 107(1-2): 44-60.

Cappozzo, H., C. Campagna, J. Monserrat. 1991. Sexual dimorphism in newborn southern sea lions. Marine Mammal Science, 7(4): 385-394.

Grzimek, B. 1990. Grzimek's Encyclopedia of Mammals. New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company.

Harcourt, R. 1992. Factors affecting early mortality in the South American fur seal Arctocephalus australis in Peru density related effects and predation. Journal of Zoology (London), 226(2): 259-270.

Harcourt, R. 1993. Individual variation in predation on fur seals by southern sea lions (Otaria byronia) in Peru. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 71(9): 1908-1911.

MacDonald, D. 1985. The Encyclopedia of Mammals. New York: Facts on File Publications.

Nowak, R. 1999. Walker's Mammals of the World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Ridgway, S., R. Harrison. 1981. Handbook of Marine Mammals, vol. 1. London: Academic Press.

Rodriguez, D., R. Bastida. 1993. The southern sea lion, Otaria byronia or Otaria flavescens?. Marine Mammal Science, 9(4): 372-381.

Vila, B., M. Cassini. 1990. Aggressiveness between females and mother-pup seapration in the southern sea lion in Chubut Argentina. Revista Chilena de Historia Natural, 63(2): 169-176.