The Infamous Elephant Seal

It isn’t every day that someone gets the opportunity to witness a creature as marvelously atrocious as the elephant seal. The most famous inhabitants of San Simeon, California, sees visitors from as far as Japan each year. As ridiculous as it may sound, it’s for a good reason.

Male_elephant_seal

So ugly it’s almost cute. Borrowed from Wikimedia.org, free to use/share.

In the 18th century, elephant seals were hunted almost to extinction for their blubber. By the end of the 19th century, they were believed to be extinct. A small population of them were found, however, and in 1922 they became protected by the Mexican government. Their numbers continued to grow after the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. In the 1990’s, fewer than 2 dozen seals were found on the beach just south of the Piedras Blancas lighthouse.

Within a few years, their numbers climbed and there are now about 17,000 of them that currently thrive there. Along the North America Central Coast, their numbers have recovered to over 200,000. Needless to say, the elephant seal has made quite the comeback.

Numerous nonprofit organizations have been founded to protect the unique creatures, including Friends of the Elephant Seal. Scientists keep a close eye on the elephant seal population, and literally stand on the beach and count them.

Richard Condt, a scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute interviewed with The Cambrian and explained, ‘“They are all just sitting there in a pile waiting to be counted,” he said. “Not many animals will do that.”’

Besides being hilariously unfortunate looking, the seals are known for their obnoxious social tendencies and mating habits. Their typical lazy demeanor is deceiving: if you’re visiting the beaches between Morro Bay and San Simeon during the months December-February, you might be lucky enough to witness the bloody battlefield of the elephant seal dating world.

Beachy Keen got the opportunity to speak with Gita R. Kolluru, Ph.D., a Biology professor at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.  “The elephant seals have a resource-oriented mating system,” Dr. Kolluru explained, “the most ‘fit’ males have the largest territories and therefore have access to all of the females within their territory.”

These territories, called harems, tend to have at least fifty females. The biggest and strongest males can defend those harems from smaller, weaker males.

In an interview with KQED Science, Caroline Casey explained how researchers are keeping track of who’s in charge of what territories, “We have come up with this ranking system where we assign each male a score”. When males fight, depending on who wins and who loses, their scores are adjusted accordingly.

This highly competitive mating atmosphere results in about 90% of male elephant seals never producing offspring. If a smaller male challenges a larger male in an attempt to find a mate, a scuffle will surely ensue. Sometimes a tilt of the head and a snort is all it takes to end the confrontation, but if a fight escalates, it can get bloody very quickly, sometimes resulting in death.

Yikes! it sure makes the human dating experience seem like a cakewalk.

Stay tuned for next week’s adventure, when Beachy Keen explores Montaña de Oro and the critters within its vibrant tide pools!

Northern Elephant Seal, Piedras Blancas, San Simeon, CA 02feb200

Not your typical brawl. Image by Avrah Baum. Free to use/share.

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