By Kaleena Fraga

As sea lions return to their native habitats in New Zealand, experts are trying to figure out the best way for the animals to co-exist with humans.

Fleeing hunters 200 years ago, sea lions in New Zealand retreated to sub-Antarctic islands hundreds of miles south. But these gentle giants have started navigating back to their native shores. Now, humans are grappling with how to co-exist with them.

The first step? Figuring out where the sea lions may appear. In a study published in Methods in Ecology and Evolution, an international team of researchers has proposed using an integrated model database to predict the sea lions’ behavior.

They looked at modeling about sea lions’ habits and combined it with on-the-ground sightings. Their goal is to identify possible sea lion habitats and help the sea lions thrive away from human activity.

“It’s one thing for wildlife rangers to look out for sea lions on sandy beaches, but it’s another challenge for them to tromp through forests to find baby sea lions hiding under the trees,” explained Veronica Frans, a Ph.D. student in quantitative ecology at Michigan State University and the lead author of the study.

“While we can’t know for sure where female sea lions will go on the mainland, we can use models to make helpful predictions.”

Officials with New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, which partially funded the research, say that the new model will be beneficial to both sea lions and humans. The model can identify possible sea lion habitats and threats. But it can also raise awareness for locals who may cross their path.

“One way it will help is the public awareness and engagement and knowing which communities to target as the population expands,” said Laura Boren, a science adviser for the conservation agency.

“We can get people ready for sea lions coming to their town.”

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