The massive elephant seals (and the massive story behind them)

On January 5th, 2016, I had experienced something that few outside of California do: See first hand a rookery of Northern elephant seals during the peak season when males, females, and pups are all on the beach. There was a massive surplus of males- over 360 of them, according to the census, as opposed to around 240 females, 50 pups, and 1 adolescent. The males were massive, with a couple of them reaching 5,000 pounds in weight! One of those 5,000 pound males had a harem of half a dozen females, two of them with newborn pups (evidently, he was their father). Several males, of all age groups, were fighting for either dominance or just out of testosterone. Overall, it was an amazing visit! I will look forward to going again!

However, Northern elephant seals were not always this prosperous. They were hunted relentlessly for their fat in the 1700’s, far more than their natural predators (Orcas and Great white sharks) have ever done to them. By the 1800’s, they were actually declared extinct.

A small group of a dozen Northern elephant seals were discovered on Guadalupe island in the 1850’s. It was by pure luck that the people who discovered them were not poachers, otherwise the seals would have all been killed. Happily, this tiny population grew tremendously, and today, their numbers exceed 200,000. They are not on the Endangered species list, but, due to being Marine mammals, are protected.

This is considered to be one of the biggest success stories with animals, right up there with the American alligator and the Bald eagle, both of those sharing similar success stories. However, not all mammals, birds, and reptiles had such a happy ending. Since the year 2000, over 30 species and subspecies of Mammals, Birds, and Reptiles have been declared extinct, among them the Pyrenean ibex, the Yangtze River dolphin, the Florida panther, and the famous Pinta Island giant tortoise. What can we do to save more from sharing this fate? It’s up to you and me.

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One comment

  1. andrewwingfield · March 1, 2016

    The elephant seal rookery sounds like an amazing thing to see. I grew up in northern California, and have seen a lot of marine mammals in the wild there, but I’ve never seen this sight. Also, I didn’t know elephant seals came so close to extinction before their population rebounded. Thanks for sharing this info!

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