Thursday, October 09, 2008
Milo our young California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) is a character. A very intelligent pinniped, he has a playful personality that can be quite endearing to be around. However he can also get quite needy. When he feels a bit nervous Milo finds comfort being close around his trainers. A people oriented animal, sometimes he just needs to make contact with one of his human buddies to feel secure.
Normally California sea lions feel more secure when they can make contact with other sea lions. Milo on the other hand extends this behavioral need to people. He might extend his flipper just far enough to come into contact with your foot and then feel totally relaxed.
Scientists call this need to be in physical contact with others thigmotaxis. There is positive thigmotaxis where an animal has a need for physical contact and negative thigmotaxis where the animals don’t particularly need physical contact. Milo definitely has positive thigmotaxis. The word is kind of mouthful to say so the mammalogists just call it “Getting Thiggy” as in “Milo is getting thiggy with one of the trainers”.
The need to “Get Thiggy” is high on the list of California sea lion needs. You can see this in the wild when sea lions haul out onto buoys in the harbor. They pile onto each other with hardly any space between them. There can be a dozen or more sea lions lying on top of each other on the same buoy. And if there are not any other sea lions around, sea lions have been known to get together with other species. I’ve seen sea lions sleeping next to Northern elephant seals on the rookery beaches of Central California.
This need for physical contact shows up early in a sea lion’s life. Back when I used to rescue and rehabilitate stranded marine mammals, I actually had baby sea lions only a few weeks old saunter up and fall asleep next to me.
Afternoon visitors to the Aquarium of the Pacific can see our sea lions “Getting Thiggy” when they haul out onto the deck to take a nap next to one another after the afternoon training session. You can see them use each other as pillows, comforters, and foot rests.
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