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All Creatures,

Episode 82: Mammoths of the Sea, the Elephant Seal

April 09, 2019

Elephant Seals are the largest seal, or pinniped, on Earth. Once almost hunted to extinction, Elephant Seals populations have grown over the last century, but are still at risk due to the increased pollution and exploitation of the world’s oceans. They are called “Elephants” not due to their size, but rather due to their large noses which often resemble a trunk of a true elephant.

Elephant Seal Description

There are two separate species of Elephant Seals:

Of the two species, the male Southern Elephant Seal is the largest pinniped on the planet. Males can reach over 20 feet (6 m) long and can weigh up to 8800 lb (4000 kg). Females are much smaller at 10 feet (3 m) and weigh up to 2000 lb (900 kg), though still rather large. Northern elephant seals do not quite reach the length or weight of their relatives south of the equator.

Elephant Seals are considered a “true seal” of the Family Phocidae. The other two Families are the Family of Otariidae (sea lions, fur seal), which have outer ears (oracles) and the Family of Odobenidae (Walrus).

Pinnipeds are thought to have descended from a common ancestor over 30 million years ago. Their earliest ancestors were an otter-like creature that eventually evolved to exist solely in the World’s oceans. The two closest Families of the pinnipeds are Ursidae (bears) and Mustelids (otters, ferrets, etc.).

The smallest seal in the world is the only freshwater seal located in Siberia, Russia. The Baikal Seal only grows to 4.5 feet (1.7 m) long and weighs up to 150 lb (70 kg). They are landlocked around Lake Baikai, and have a population of roughly 80,000 seals.

Elephant Seal Facts

One of the most amazing facts about Elephant Seals are their ability to dive deep. Their physiology supports their ability to dive deeper than most whales. They can flatten their lungs to protect against air pressure. They also can slow their metabolism and divert blood flow from their extremities to their core organs. They have red blood cells that can carry more oxygen than most mammals and have more of them. The record dive for an Elephant Seal was measured at 2388 m (9300 feet) that lasted for 120 minutes.

Other facts include:

  • Northern Elephant Seals live up to 9 years
  • Southern Elephant Seals live up to 20-22 years
  • Northern Elephant Seals noses are much larger than the Southern
  • Migratory feeders, with some Northern Elephant Seals seen as far north as Alaska
  • Prefer squid, but will eat fish and crustaceans
  • Spend over 80% of their lives at sea
  • Go through a “catastrophic” molt once per year, replacing their skin/hide
  • Polygamous mating system, with dominant males called “beachmasters”
  • Eyes are specialized to see in low light conditions for deep dives
  • Do not drink water but rather convert fat to water

Elephant Seals are prey to Great White Sharks, Orcas, and occasional pups are taken by Leopard Seals.

Elephant Seal Conservation

The Elephant Seal was prized for its blubber at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Both species suffered, however the Northern Elephant Seal was hunted down to less than 100 animals found off Baja California. While populations today exceed 110,000, the incredible genetic bottleneck of the Northern Elephant Seal can spell trouble in the future. Southern Elephant Seal populations are estimated to be over 325,000.

Conservation Tips

30 million tons of plastic waste generated in the US in 2009, only 7 percent was recovered for recycling. We need to keep reducing our use of plastics. Here are some tips:

  • Use matches instead of disposable plastic lighters or invest in a refillable metal lighter.
  • Avoid buying frozen foods because their packaging is mostly plastic. Even those that appear to be cardboard are coated in a thin layer of plastic. Plus, you’ll be eating fewer processed foods!
  • The EPA estimates that 7.6 billion pounds of disposable diapers are discarded in the US each year. Use cloth diapers to reduce your baby’s carbon footprint and save money.
  • Pack your lunch in reusable containers and bags. Also, opt for fresh fruits and veggies and bulk items instead of products that come in single serving cups.
  • Use a razor with replaceable blades instead of a disposable razor

Organizations to Support

Marine Mammal Center

Videos

Homer the Elephant Seal v a Car

Male Elephant Seal Fight

UC Santa Cruz Elephant Seal Video

 

 

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