Amid perhaps the largest toxic algae bloom in U.S. history, California’s sea lions are suffering brain damage, according to a new report. The algae produces domoic acid, which poisons the animals and leaves them unable to find food, leading to unprecedented numbers of stranded sea lions. Sick sea lions have been reported farther away than ever before and new reports further illuminate the link between the algae bloom and the loss of brain cells in sea lions.

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Domoic acid has long been known as a toxin responsible for killing brain cells in its victims. Although toxic algae blooms are not rare, this summer’s was the most severe in history. It spanned from southern California to Alaska, and while most algae blooms last just a few weeks, this one persisted much longer. That led to unprecedented exposure for coastal sea lions, causing the animals to become disoriented and unable to navigate. This in turn makes it troublesome for them to find food, and eventually they become stranded.

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New research by a UC Santa Cruz team shows the relationship between damage to the brain and sea lions’ profound loss of memory and navigational skills, proving the toxic algae is to blame. Scientists have encountered growing numbers of stranded sea lions that exhibit signs of domoic acid poisoning, and the sick animals have been spotted as far north as Washington state. The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California reports “75 percent of our current sea lion patients are suffering from the effects of domoic acid, a dangerous neurotoxin.”

Via Mercury News

Images via Shutterstock and the Marine Mammal Center