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Once Near Extinction, California Condors Face New Threat: Sea Lions

Photo caption: A California Condor is perched atop a pine tree in the Los Padres National Fo...

Photo by Associated Press

A California Condor is perched atop a pine tree in the Los Padres National Forest east of Big Sur, Thursday, July 10, 2008.

Once Near Extinction, California Condors Face New Threat: Sea Lions


Carolyn Kurle, assistant professor, UC San Diego


California condors became nearly extinct in the 1980s, when the their population dwindled down to just 22. The culprit: lead poisoning from animal carcasses shot with lead bullets.

Recovery efforts and hunter education campaigns have bolstered the California condor population to more than 400 this year, but according to a new study in the journal "Environmental Science & Technology," condors face a new threat. This time, from eating dead sea lions.

Scientists had initially hoped condors living on the Northern California coast would be safer than condors inland in Southern California because sea lions were unlikely to be shot by hunters. But UC San Diego biology professor Carolyn Kurle, one of the lead authors of the study, found the Northern California birds had high levels of mercury and pesticides.

Most California sea lions breed at the Channel Islands in Southern California, which were contaminated with the insecticide DDT from the 1940s through 1970s by Montrose Chemical Corp. and others, according to Kurle. Condors that eat the contaminated sea lions lay thin-shelled eggs with a low chance of hatching successfully.

Kurle said research shows condors may suffer from eating both marine and land mammals.

"They’re both terrible," Kurle told KPBS Midday Edition on Monday. "There’s no safe wild food for these birds."

So is this the kind of threat that make it impossible for California condors to live in the wild?

"Oh gosh, I hope not. ... I just think that these data that we've figured out are just more information for the managers and conservationists who are working with these birds," Kurle said.

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