As the winter months set in, many animals migrate, go into hibernation, or are not readily available for viewing. That is not the case for the elephant seal! The winter is a very important time for this seal. The elephant seal is a kind of ocean-going seal, with two extant species, the northern elephant seal (M. angustirostris) and the southern elephant seal (M. leonina). It is actually the largest species of seal in the world! The Elephant seal gets its name from the large nose on the mature male that resembles an elephant trunk. While they may be difficult to distinguish at birth, mature male and female elephant seals are extremely different in appearance. A very obvious distinguishing factor is the large trunk-like nose, called the proboscis, only present on the male seal. Additionally, the male elephant seal is over twice the size of the female! Males often are roughly 13 feet in length and 4,500 lbs, while females are around 10 feet in length and 1,500 lbs. The northern elephant seal can be found living in the Pacific coasts of the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
Its slightly larger relative, the Southern elephant seal, can be found on islands in the southern hemisphere, as well as in New Zealand and Africa. These two seals belong to the same genus, Mirounga, yet are different species. Therefore, the two seals have certain aspects in common. The general appearance of the Northern and Southern species is similar, with the exception of size. The ocean behavior, and breeding characteristics are similar. The breeding times, however, are different. The Northern elephant seal breeds in the months of January-February, and the Southern seals in the months of September-November. The winter breeding time of Northern elephant seals makes Ano Nuevo State Park in Pescadero a popular place for viewing these interesting animals. November is the beginning of the cycle, and the end of the month is when adult males arrive on the shores. In December, the males continue to arrive, and begin fighting for territory and dominance. They will inflate their noses and produce a drum-like sound to ward off lesser males. The confrontations are known to get violent and bloody, with the losers sometimes retreating back to sea. Females also begin to arrive and begin to give birth to the pups they have been carrying since the previous year. The females will associate with a dominant male, forming harems of around 40-50 females to every male. Breeding follows, and continues into January and February, with the last females arriving and giving birth. The females will stay and nurse their pup for around 28 days. During this time, both mother and pup survive off of the mothers blubber. The mother’s milk is high in fat content, and the pup gains about 10 pounds a day. After being weaned off of their mothers milk, the pups are referred to as “weaners” and will remain on the beaches, fasting and learning water skills. The females return to sea and will not be back at the beach until they molt in April. At this time, the young usually set out into the waters on their own. They will learn to hunt on their own, preying upon small fish, squid, and sometimes even small sharks.
Elephant seals were once very desirable to hunters for their oils, and even hunted to the brink of extinction! Luckily, legal protections were enacted and the population has been restored over the years. The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito is one organization that has led the restoration and rehabilitation efforts of the elephant seals. With their humongous sizes, and interesting habits, these majestic animals remain a sight to see, and can be observed throughout the winter season!
Image credit: Mike Baird