California Sea Lion

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Charles W. Potter, B.S.

Charles Potter standing in the foreground as Bill McLelland, another cetacean expert, sits atop a stranded sperm whale off the coast of North Carolina

Photo by Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution

Charles Potter came to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in the early 1970s after finishing his undergraduate degree in zoology from the State University of New York and Syracuse University. He is responsible for supervision of collection management activities relating to marine mammals, including accessions, specimen preparation, cataloging, specimen installations, curation, loans, information requests, and assisting visitors. Together with James Mead, Potter helped establish a national marine mammal stranding network that is now administered by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Since Potter and Mead have been at the Smithsonian, the marine mammal collection has become the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of its kind. Potter’s field work has taken him from the North Pacific to the tropics and the Antarctic. With colleagues at the Fisheries Service, he has been actively working to reduce the incidental take of marine mammals in commercial fisheries. In addition to his duties as the collection manager for marine mammals, he is working on bottlenose dolphin zoogeography and feeding ecology. Most recently he has been working with nations of the lower Caribbean to establish a multinational response to marine mammal events.

Meet our associated expert

This image was obtained from the Smithsonian Institution. The image or its contents may be protected by international copyright laws.

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Whiskered face of a young grey seal (Halichoerus grypus)
Courtesy of Wayne, via Flickr: EOL Images, CC-BY-NC


About Seals and Sea Lions (Infraorder Pinnipedia): Senses

Like other marine mammals, pinnipeds evolved from ancestors that lived on land. Modern pinnipeds feed underwater, but regularly haul onto land to warm in the sun, sleep, and reproduce. Their eyes have to work underwater, while still having some use on land. For underwater vision, pinniped eyes are large with extra curvature of their lens to bend light (which is how images are formed). Also helping them see in dim, ocean light are lots of light-sensitive cells and a membrane that reflects light back to the retina that otherwise would escape. On land, the extra lens curvature makes pinnipeds nearsighted (myopic). In bright, sunny conditions, such as reflective ice, their pupils close to a vertical slit to partly counteract the myopia. Whiskers on their noses that are highly sensitive to touch help them explore on land. In water, the whiskers may serve as motion detectors, picking up vibrations from fish or other objects.

To a lizard, these meerkats (Suricata suricatta) are a fearsome mob of predators
Courtesy of Amada44, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

About Carnivores (Order Carnivora): Feeding

Although modern carnivores are a diverse group when it comes to diet, a typical carnivore feeds mostly on meat. Meat-eating carnivores tend to have a set of sharp-tipped teeth (carnassials), a characteristic of ancestral carnivores. Modified from molars, carnassials are specialized for slicing flesh. While meat is easier to digest, prey must be found, captured, and killed. Hunting collaboratively is sometimes more effective than hunting alone, and many large carnivores hunt in groups. Elaborate social behaviors have evolved around hunting, such as the dominance hierarchy in a pack of wolves. Even carnivores that do not hunt collaboratively, such as harbor seals and coatis, may live in social groups. Benefits of grouping may include sharing care of young or sharing defense of territory. Young carnivores must learn to hunt, which often means an extended training period. Carnivores have a high ratio of brain to body mass, allowing for the learning, coordination, and agility needed for hunting.