The poison enters the food chain when sea-lion prey—such as sardines, anchovies, and herring—eat the toxin-producing diatomic algae. In pregnant sea lions, domoic acid concentrates in the amniotic fluid, causing prolonged exposure to the fetus.
In their study, the researchers exposed female rodents to domoic acid during pregnancy and found that their offspring developed abnormal brain neurons, which caused usually nonfatal seizures and abnormal behavior—such as gnawing and head-shaking—later in life.
Though scientists have observed sea lions seizing on the beach, it's possible that if the animals were feeding offshore and a seizure occurred, they would drown, Ramsdell added.
Domoic acid isn't the first chemical assault on sea lions. The mammals were hit with the toxic industrial chemicals PCB and DDT in the 1960s and infectious disease in the 1970s, which scientists believe led to mass reproductive failures.
Domoic acid toxicity was first documented in sea lions a decade ago, when exposure caused acute neurological disease in sea lions and led to a mass stranding of the animals in California from Monterey Bay to San Diego.
The study authors believe female sea lions in California are highly susceptible to domoic acid because they forage year-round near rookeries that have become increasingly subject to blooms of domoic acid-producing algae.
And because sea lions stay in the womb for 11 months, unborn pups are exposed to the toxin for a long time, the researchers say.
One aspect of the new findings, which is still preliminary, suggests that sea lions' combined history of exposures may make them more vulnerable to domoic acid poisoning when they reach adulthood.
Ramsdell notes that because domoic acid occurs naturally, scientists aren't working to prevent it. But if human-made chemicals do turn out to be contributing factors, efforts could be made to address those.
Scientists in a separate NOAA initiative are already studying the impact of harmful algal blooms on marine mammals to determine if similar impacts could affect humans.
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