This month marks the beginning of the breeding season for endangered Australian sea lions (Neophoca cinerea) as well as a great opportunity for citizen scientists to help conserve this rare species.

A new project called the Whisker Patrol is asking for help with a possible new method for tracking and identifying individual sea lions. As you might guess from the project's name, it's focused on the whiskers on each pinniped's face. The project hopes to develop a methodology to ID individual sea lions based on their facial whisker patterns. If successful, this could replace or supplement the current "trap and tag" method that is potentially dangerous both for the sea lions and the researchers studying them.

We've seen similar photo-identification techniques like this before but according to the Whisker Patrol Web site, current techniques aren't the best option for sea lions; they don't have unique markings on their fur the way tigers or other species do. Whales can be identified by their scars but a sea lion's thick fur covers up any such imperfections.

The whisker ID method has already been tested at zoos and aquariums by the researchers who hail from the Center for Marine Science and Technology at Curtin University in Perth, where it proved capable of identifying individual animals in those small populations. Now they want to try it on a larger scale.

That's where citizen scientists come in. The team is asking people who visit Australian beaches to photograph any sea lions they see—carefully, of course. These guys are big, they bite, they often rest on protected beaches, and human disturbance can cause them to burn the energy they need for long-term survival. They suggest not getting closer than 10 meters to a sea lion and never getting between the animals and the water. The researchers themselves recently took some photos on Seal and Carnac islands and used 300-millimeter telephoto lenses to get pictures from a safe distance.

The images also have to be taken in a very specific manner so they can work with computer algorithms: They should be taken 90 degrees from the front and show both the muzzle and the eye. If any injuries, scars or other abnormalities happen to be visible, those can be good photo reference points as well. Pictures should be tagged with the date and location and can be uploaded to the Whisker Patrol site.

Once threatened by overharvesting for their fur, Australian sea lions remain a threatened species and are legally protected. They still face threats from overfishing (which removes their prey), entanglement in fishing nets and lobster pots, and illegal shooting.

Photo: Sea lions in Vivonne Bay, South Australia, by caccamo via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license

Previously in Extinction Countdown: