Pinniped Taxonomy Revised

Of interest to viewers of this blog,  Annalisa Berta and I have recently published a taxonomic revision of this group

A more detailed dissection of changes is presented in this blog post

no new splits at species level, but quite a few lumps at subspecies level (and a few at species level)


  • vladimir dinets

    Since when does disjunct distribution automatically prohibit lumping? Should we now split every rookery into a species?

  • morganchurchill

    in defense it was also based that the sample sizes for either taxon is pitifully small, making it difficult to assess how relevant the limited genetic and morphological sampling is and the disjunction is pretty significant (Baja California/Socal versus Juan Fernandez islands off Chile).

  • Coke Smith

    Are these changes based on DNA analysis?

    • Morgan Churchill

      This review takes in account previously published molecular and morphological evidence. I actually am in the process of creating a morphological phylogeny, which so far supports most of the lumping (I have yet to see any diagnosable consistent difference in skulls between the New Zealand and South American fur seals for instance).

      One split we did support was a three way split between Zalophus, with the extinct Japanese Sea Lion, Galapagos Sea Lion, and California Sea Lion all recognized as distinct species.

      • VladimirDinets

        So, if I see a Zalophus off Costa Rica, how can I tell which one it is?

        • morganchurchill

          Vagrants to Costa Rica have been determined to have been Galapagos Sea Lion; As for differences in morphology between the two, the Galapagos species is on average smaller with males have a lower sagittal crest, and they typically retain 2 molars rather than the normal 1 molar for California/Japanese Sea Lions (Personal observation). I believe there are also some more finer morphometric differences in the crania between the two, but I would have to double check the literature on the exact details

      • VladimirDinets

        So, there are no reliable field characters? That’s too bad, considering that they probably come into contact somewhere in Central America.

  • John Fox

    Hi Morgan

    I liked your opening, these animals are “charismatic but hard to study”. No doubt. Good luck to you.

    Thanks for the link to BirdForums, I hadn’t seen that. Some good mammalwatching info, I spent the better part of the afternoon there.

    Maybe we can put together a Vaquita trip next year. The logistics are so easy from NA, compared to, say, the Juan Fernandez Islands, and for such a great mammal …..

    If anyone else has any ideas for trying for Vaquita, please speak up!


  • Morgan Churchill

    A vaquita trip would be very interesting…and I would be up for it depending on my school schedule.

    The mammals forum on Birdforum is a great resource. Biased towards Europe, but otherwise useful.

  • VladimirDinets

    Would be a bit strange to go just for vaquita and not for all those cool island endemics and marine mammals, don’t you think? Sea of Cortez is the only place where you have good chances to see blue whales underwater, not to mention fishing Myotis, black jackrabbits and other goodies 🙂

    • morganchurchill

      ah but I can’t swim, not to mention that I need to be finishing up my PhD this summer/fall. Kind of cuts into the time available for running around baja 😛

      • VladimirDinets

        Don’t you think seeing a blue whale underwater is worth the few hours you’d have to spend in a pool learning to swim?
        A nice tour of Sea of Cortez with visits to all interesting islands would take about two weeks. I might have some friends who’d like to join. And I would agree to work as an interpreter for a relatively modest salary. How much do expedition guides charge nowadays – $350 per day, I’ve heard? I’d give you 25% discount 😉

    • John Fox

      Does Coon Air still go to Islas Tres Marias? 🙂 I’m all for it! But don’t have the language skills to go on my own much beyond the border communities.

      The ranges of related mammals of the western US and Mexico are interesting. There’s a fifth Prairie Dog and Antelope Squirrel in Mexico and the lagomorphs increase. Shoot, if a cheap flight to Mexico City showed up I’d go just to try for Volcano Rabbit.

      A day trip or an overnight out of San Diego to try for a critically endangered cetacean seems like a no brainer.

      • Morgan Churchill

        Isle Tres Marias would be worth it just for the endemic bird species/subspecies, most of which I don’t think people have made a “go” for.

        P.S. my knowledge of spanish is also pretty much zip.

      • VladimirDinets

        John: I haven’t had a chance to fly in the last 3 years, so I probably wouldn’t take passengers 🙂
        Volcano rabbits are not that easy to see. Took me ~40 hours. But that was in winter. They are supposed to be easier in April-June. Or you can try to find a local guide who knows where active burrows are, and watch them.
        I don’t think you can see a vaquita on a day trip. They are too rare now. I saw one dorsal fin in 2002 from shore (in three days of almost constant watching), but now there’s even fewer left, so you’d need a boat and at least 3-4 days.

      • Morgan Churchill

        I agree with Dinets…you would want several days and probably hire the service of a local boat. most porpoises are secretive normally, and add in the reduced population makes things more difficult

  • John Fox

    Hey Vladimir

    That Sea of Cortez tour might have legs, let’s keep it afloat. There are a lot of island endemics and darn few people looking for them.

    Morgan and I talked about a Vaquita trip last year but couldn’t pull it off. My thinking was to hire the fastest boat we could afford and cruise west of Rocas Consag. From what I’ve read a calm day with no winds is the best asset, but those are hard to come by. 3-4 days of course, 8 days if I can do it; I just meant that for a day trip out of San Diego, Vaquita is a lot more intriguing than anything else.

    Thanks for the Volcano Rabbit info. 40 hours for a rabbit is not unreasonable, depending on the rabbit :-). I spent 60+ on Pygmy Rabbit in 2010 and hearing it’s alarm call was one of the highlights of my year.


  • VladimirDinets

    I would really prefer a two-week trip with some scuba diving. Sea of Cortez is too good a place to do in a hurry. You can dive with schools of 6-feet squid there, among other things.
    The most exciting weekend trip from San Diego would be to Laguna San Ignacio in March – you can pet baby grey whales there.

  • John Fox

    I would propose that these should be split into two separate trips.

    The Vaquita is only at the far north end of the Sea of Cortez, hotelling/camping in San Felipe as many days as possible and day boat trips would be the format.

    The rest of the Sea of Cortez is huge and moving around a lot, sometimes long distances, on a live aboard boat would be the format.

    Vladimir, we’ll just have to agree to disagree about the best marine mammal from San Diego. Gray Whale populations are in a lot better shape, in all respects, than Vaquitas.


  • Leslie Cornick

    Can you explain this in more detail: Two subspecies of Northern Sea Lion are recognized, Loughlin’s Sea Lion (E. j. monteriensis) of the Western Aleutians and Japan, and Steller’s (E. j. jubatus) of the Western North Pacific

    To my knowledge this has not changed the stock designations for US Stellers, nor their ESA listings. Is this based on new molecular evidence?

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