Elephant Seal

Elephant Seal Photo
Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS
Vet in Argentina Photo
WCS Field veterinarian Marcela Uhart examines a male southern elephant seal at Peninsula Valdez, Argentina.
Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS

The large proboscis of the adult male elephant seals, or bulls, give the species its name. The appendage resembles an elephant’s trunk, and with it, the seals make very loud roaring noises, especially during mating season. This "nose" is also a complex breathing apparatus with numerous chambers for absorbing moisture and conserving oxygen. 

Elephant seals have adapted to life in generally cold aquatic environments in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, and there are two species—one in each hemisphere. The northern elephant seal ranges along the Pacific coast from Canada to Mexico. The southern, which is the larger of the two, lives in the Southern Hemisphere along the coasts of New Zealand, South Africa, Antarctica, and Argentina.

Bulls of the southern species can reach lengths of up to 15 feet and can weigh 6,000 pounds. Females are considerably smaller. Elephant seals can hold their breath for as long as two hours and dive nearly 5,000 feet in search of their prey: fish and invertebrates such as squid. In addition to being excellent swimmers, these big mammals move fast on land.

Elephant seals are both predators and prey. In the fall, hungry great white sharks congregating around the Farallon Islands off central California can make quick work of the juvenile elephant seals approaching or departing the islands. Killer whales also eat elephant seals. The seals, in turn, prey on fish, sharks, squid, crabs, and shrimp.

Fast Facts

Scientific NameMirounga angustirostris (northern) and Mirounga leonina (southern)
  • Southern elephant seal males may weigh eight to ten times more than females. This is the biggest weight difference between the sexes of any mammal.
  • Elephant seals are fat for a reason: Their blubber is a source of energy for the long periods when they are not foraging, such as during breeding season. They periodically shed their hair and outer layers of skin, during which the seals are susceptible to cold and must rest in a safe place, known as a haul-out.
  • Other than the time spent on land for breeding and molting, elephant seals may live a solitary life, mostly underwater. The northern elephant seal spends 8–10 months a year in the open ocean. The seals dive 1,000–5,000 feet deep for periods of 15 minutes to 2 hours and migrate thousands of miles twice a year.
  • Humans once boiled down elephant seal blubber for oil, and some indigenous peoples hunted the southern species for food and skins. Today, elephant seals attract ecotourists when they congregate during their birthing and breeding seasons.

Challenges

Elephant seals were once heavily hunted for their blubber. Indeed, the northern species teetered on the brink of extinction at the end of the nineteenth century. Only about 20 individuals were left in the early 1900s, before hunting was banned. Since then, the population has rebounded to an estimated 175,000. Their near-extinction underscores the need to conserve both species. Overfishing is a threat to elephant seals and all marine species, as are pollution, climate change, and the spread of diseases between species.

WCS Responds

WCS has been working to conserve marine wildlife along Argentina’s coast since the 1960s, and elephant seals in particular since the early 1980s. The southern elephant seal is the main species being studied in WCS’s Sea and Sky project, which helps protect the Patagonian Sea and its coastal areas, which make up one of the largest and richest marine ecosystems in the world.

In late 2009, WCS and Birdlife International, with the support of researchers from many organizations around the world, released the first atlas of the Patagonian Sea. The compilation contains the most accurate maps ever assembled for the ecosystem and shows key migratory corridors spanning from coastlines to deep-sea feeding areas off the continental shelf hundreds of miles away.

From the Newsroom

Argentina’s Open-Ocean ReserveAugust 2, 2013

Argentina has created its first open-ocean protected area, Burdwood Bank. This sanctuary in the Patagonian Sea will protect whales, penguins, and rare cold corals. WCS commends Argentina’s government on the achievement, and thanks local partners of the Forum of NGOs.

Directions to KarukinkaApril 20, 2012

WCS President and CEO Dr. Steven E. Sanderson recounts his recent expedition to one of the greatest wild places left on Earth: Karukinka, Chile. The trip was part of an effort to preserve this landscape and make it sustainable for generations to come.

Expedition to Tierra del Fuego’s Admiralty SoundFebruary 29, 2012

WCS conservationists Alejandro Vila, Marcela Uhart and Daniela Droguett chronicle their latest journey to the remote lands and seascape at the tip of South America.

Elephant Seal Tracked by WCS Travels 18,000 MilesDecember 9, 2011

WCS track the epic journey of “Jackson,” a young male elephant seal. Elephant seals are potential indicators of marine ecosystem health and may show how climate change influences the distribution of prey species in Patagonia’s oceans.

Chile Reels in Salmon FarmingAugust 24, 2011

WCS applauds Chile’s efforts to protect Patagonia’s waters from the salmon industry. But there are many other fish farms in its seas.

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