Evidence of injury caused by gas bubbles in a live Marine Mammal: Barotrauma in a California sea lion Zalophus californianus

W. Van Bonn, E. Montie, S. Dennison, N. Pussini, P. Cook, D. Greig, J. Barakos, K. Colegrove, F. Gulland

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A yearling male California sea lion Zalophus californianus with hypermetric ataxia and bilateral negative menace reflexes was brought to The Marine Mammal Center, Sausalito, California, USA, in late 2009 for medical assessment and treatment. The clinical signs were due to multiple gas bubbles within the cerebellum. These lesions were intraparenchymal, multifocal to coalescing, spherical to ovoid, and varied from 0.5 to 2.4 cm diameter. The gas composed 21.3% of the total cerebellum volume. Three rib fractures were also noted during diagnostic evaluation and were presumed to be associated with the gas bubbles in the brain. The progression of clinical signs and lesion appearance were monitored with magnetic resonance imaging, cognitive function testing and computed tomography. Gas filled voids in the cerebellum were filled with fluid on follow up images. Clinical signs resolved and the sea lion was released with a satellite tag attached. Post release the animal travelled approximately 75 km north and 80 km south of the release site and the tag recorded dives of over 150 m depth. The animal re-stranded 25 d following release and died of a subacute bronchopneumonia and pleuritis. This is the first instance of clinical injury due to gas bubble formation described in a living pinniped and the first sea lion with quantifiable cerebellar damage to take part in spatial learning and memory testing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)89-96
Number of pages8
JournalDiseases of Aquatic Organisms
Issue number2
StatePublished - Sep 9 2011


  • Barotrauma
  • California sea lion
  • Gas bubbles
  • Zalophus californianus

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Aquatic Science


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