Elephant Seal

Elephant Seals are huge beasts of the ocean that use their mighty noses to combat for dominance and attract mates.

Mirounga, commonly known as Elephant Seal, are enormous, earless seals that travel the ocean. Due to their enormous, elephant-like-looking nostrils, adult male elephant seals are given their common moniker. Elephant seals come in two varieties: northern and southern. Both the Northern Elephant Seal (Mirounga Angustirostris) and the Southern Elephant Seal (Mirounga Leonina) are the world’s biggest seals.

Elephant Seals are marine animals that belong to the family Phocidae and are regarded as “real seals.” Phocids, or real seals, are distinguished by their shrunken appendages and lack of an external ear.

Featured Image Credit: Cathy Lorraine


Appearance

Elephant Seals get their name from the mature males’ broad nose, which is thought to be a secondary sexual feature and resembles the trunk of an elephant. But more crucially, the nose functions as a kind of rebreather, with chambers created to capture moisture from exhalations and reabsorb it. Elephant Seal bulls generally measure between 14 to 16 feet in length and weigh between 5,000 and 7,000 pounds, making them extraordinarily huge animals. 

Male and female species of Elephant Seal on the sand
Male and female species of Elephant Seal on the sand

Credit: marlin harms

Elephant Seals from the south are often bigger than those from the north. In comparison to the southern variety, adult male Elephant Seals from the north often have bigger snouts and a thicker chest region with red coloring. Females can be distinguished across species by looking at their nose features since they lack big snouts. Compared to northern females, southern females typically have a smaller, blunter nose.

Diet

Elephant Seals are carnivores that mostly eat fish and squid. However, they sometimes eat rays and sharks. Elephant Seals travel great distances in search of food, spending months at sea and frequently going quite deep to hunt. Elephant Seals under no circumstances go out to feed during mating season. 

Due to their enormous size, and fat distribution, it allows them to go on fasting periods that can last well into three months between feeding times. When they molt, big sections of their old skin are removed along with their short, thick hair. The process of molting lasts 4 to 5 weeks.

Habitat

In the course of the year, Elephant Seals spend around nine months in the water. The majority of this time is spent submerged, diving for periods of 20 to 30 minutes at a time to depths of around 1,000 – 2,500 feet, with only brief resurfacing stops. For this reason, they are rarely spotted at sea. Sand beaches are their preferred habitat when Elephant Seals get on land. 

Although they tend to inhabit outlying islands over the North American continent, Northern Elephant Seals can be found in California. Southern Elephant Seals inhabit sub-Antarctic and Antarctic waters that are extremely cold yet abundant in the fish, squid, and other marine nutrients that these seals prefer.

Reproduction

Male Elephant Seals establish and guard territory when the mating season approaches. In contrast to their huge partners, they gather a harem of tiny females. Males compete with one another for control of mating. Many confrontations culminate in violent, brutal fighting, while others only result in shouting and combative posturing. 

Mother Elephant Seal and her pup resting
Mother Elephant Seal and her pup resting

Credit: marlin harms

Particularly during the mating season, the bull makes extremely loud roaring noises with its nose. Elephant Seals lose a significant amount of weight during the mating season, with cases of a 36% decrease in their total body weight. Female Elephant Seals give birth to a single pup in the late winter and raise it for about a month. After an 11-month pregnancy, females give birth to one pup each year.

Threats

Elephant Seals may become caught in fishing lines, either swimming away with the line still connected or being anchored and possibly drowning if they are unable to surface for air. Elephant Seals that become entangled may drag and swim for long distances with connected gear, resulting in weariness, limited feeding capacity, or serious damage, which may lead to diminished reproductive success, poorer overall survival, and/or mortality. 

Two male Elephant Seals fighting for dominance
Two male Elephant Seals fighting for dominance

Credit: Richard McManus

They may be hurt or killed by accidental vessel hits. The expected increase in vessel traffic brought on by the opening of polar shipping routes and arctic sea ice continues to melt would increase environmental noise and air pollution, in addition to the likelihood of vessel collisions.

Facts about the Elephant Seal

  1. Elephant Seals are highly social creatures.
  2. Elephant Seals are among the most prominent examples of sexual dimorphism.
  3. The length and weight of a male Southern Elephant may reach over 20 feet and 8,000 lbs.
  4. Elephant Seals spend 90% of their life in water.
  5. Elephant Seal pups weigh 110 lbs.


FAQs

Can Elephant Seals hurt you?

Elephant Seals are several thousand pounds heavier than an average human. They possess great mass with great sharp teeth that can bite. While Elephant Seals don’t actively attack humans, if challenged in their habitat, they will certainly hurt a human. The bite of an Elephant Seal carries bacteria that cause serious infections.

Why do Elephant Seals flip sand?

In cold water, Elephant Seal bodies are built to maintain heat. Sand flipping serves as a sunblock and keeps them cool on dry land. Additionally, when under pressure, they occasionally can be observed flipping sand as a way to soothe themselves.

Why do Elephant Seals molt?

The Elephant Seals adjust to being able to dive so deep and stay there in the frigid ocean for extended periods of time.  Elephant Seals need to spend roughly a month on the shore in order to remove their old skin and grow new, healthy skin that allows for constant blood flow have the least body heat loss.

How long do Elephant Seals live?

Elephant Seals can live anywhere between 10-20 years, depending on sex, and other environmental variables, especially food availability. On average male Elephant Seals will live for up to 15 years, while females can go around 20.

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