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Elephant seal

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Elephant seals
Male and female northern elephant seals
Male and female southern elephant seals
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Clade: Pinnipedia
Family: Phocidae
Tribe: Miroungini
Muizon, 1981
Genus: Mirounga
Gray, 1827
Type species
Phoca leonina

Elephant seals or sea elephants are very large, oceangoing earless seals in the genus Mirounga. Both species, the northern elephant seal (M. angustirostris) and the southern elephant seal (M. leonina), were hunted to the brink of extinction for oil by the end of the 19th century, but their numbers have since recovered. They are the largest extant carnivorans, weighing up to 4,000 kilograms (8,800 lb). Despite their name, elephant seals are not closely related to elephants, and the large proboscis or trunk that males have was convergently evolved.

The northern elephant seal, somewhat smaller than its southern relative, ranges over the Pacific coast of the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The most northerly breeding location on the Pacific Coast is at Race Rocks Marine Protected Area, at the southern tip of Vancouver Island in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The southern elephant seal is found in the Southern Hemisphere on islands such as South Georgia and Macquarie Island, and on the coasts of New Zealand, Tasmania, South Africa, and Argentina in the Peninsula Valdés. In southern Chile, there is a small colony of 120 animals at Jackson Bay (Bahía Jackson) in Admiralty Sound (Seno Almirantazgo) on the southern coast of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego.[1]

The oldest known unambiguous elephant seal fossils are fragmentary fossils of a member of the tribe Miroungini described from the late Pliocene Petane Formation of New Zealand.[2] Teeth originally identified as representing an unnamed species of Mirounga have been found in South Africa, and dated to the Miocene epoch;[3][4] however, Boessenecker and Churchill (2016) considered these teeth almost certainly to be misidentified toothed whale (odontocete) teeth.[2] The elephant seals evolved in the Pacific Ocean during the Pliocene period.[2][5][6]

Elephant seals breed annually and are seemingly habitual to colonies that have established breeding areas.[7]


John Edward Gray established the genus Mirounga in 1827.[8] The generic name Mirounga is a Latinization of miouroung, which is said to have been a term for the seal in an Australian Aboriginal language. However, it is not known which language this represents.[9]


Elephant seals are marine mammals classified under the order Pinnipedia, which, in Latin, means feather- or fin-footed.[10] Elephant seals are considered true seals, and fall under the family Phocidae.[11] Phocids (true seals) are characterized by having no external ear and reduced limbs.[11] The reduction of their limbs helps them be more streamlined and move easily in the water.[10] However, it makes navigating on land more difficult because they cannot turn their hind flippers forward to walk like the otariids.[10] In addition, the hind flippers of elephant seals have a lot of surface area, which helps propel them in the water.[10] Elephant seals spend the majority of their life (90%) underwater in search of food, and can cover 100 kilometres (60 miles) a day when they head out to sea.[11] When elephant seals are born, they can weigh up to 36 kilograms (79 pounds) and reach lengths up to 122 cm (4 ft 0 in).[11] Sexual dimorphism is extreme, with male elephant seals weighing up to 10 times more than females,[12] and having a prominent proboscis.[11]

Elephant seals take their name from the large proboscis of the adult male (bull), reminiscent of an elephant's trunk, and considered a secondary sexual characteristic.[13] The bull's proboscis is used in producing extraordinarily loud roaring noises, especially during the mating season. More importantly, however, the nose acts as a sort of rebreather, filled with cavities that reabsorb moisture from their exhalations.[14] This is important during the mating season when the seals do not leave the beach to feed, and must conserve body moisture as there is no incoming source of water. They are very much larger than other pinnipeds, with southern elephant seal bulls typically reaching a length of 5 m (16 ft) and a weight of 3,000 kg (7,000 lb), and are much larger than the adult females (cows), with some exceptionally large males reaching up to 6 m (20 ft) in length and weighing 4,000 kg (9,000 lb); cows typically measure about 3 m (10 ft) and 900 kg (2,000 lb). Northern elephant seal bulls reach a length of 4.3 to 4.8 m (14 to 16 ft) and the heaviest weigh about 2,500 kg (5,500 lb).[15][16]

The northern and southern elephant seal can be distinguished by various external features. On average, the southern elephant seal tends to be larger than the northern species.[12] Adult male elephant seals belonging to the northern species tend to have a larger proboscis, and thick chest area with a red coloration compared to the southern species.[12] Females do not have the large proboscis and can be distinguished between species by looking at their nose characteristics.[12] Southern females tend to have a smaller, blunt nose compared to northern females.[12]

Extant species distributions[edit]

Genus MiroungaGray, 1827 – two species
Common name Scientific name and subspecies Range Size and ecology IUCN status and estimated population
Northern elephant seal

Mirounga angustirostris
(Gill, 1866)
Eastern Pacific Ocean
Map of range



Southern elephant seal

Mirounga leonina
(Linnaeus, 1758)
South Atlantic
Map of range




Skull of a northern elephant seal

Elephant seals spend up to 80% of their lives in the ocean. They can hold their breath for more than 100 minutes[17][18] – longer than any other noncetacean mammal. Elephant seals dive to 1,550 m (5,090 ft) beneath the ocean's surface[17] (the deepest recorded dive of an elephant seal is 2,388 m (7,835 ft) by a southern elephant seal, while the record for the northern elephant seal is 1,735 m (5,692 ft)).[19][20][21] The average depth of their dives is about 300 to 600 m (1,000 to 2,000 ft), typically for around 20 minutes for females and 60 minutes for males, as they search for their favorite foods, which are skates, rays, squid, octopuses, eels, small sharks and large fish. Their stomachs also often contain gastroliths. They spend only brief amounts of time at the surface to rest between dives (2–3 minutes).[11] Females tend to dive a bit deeper due to their prey source.[11]

Male elephant seals fighting for mates

Elephant seals are shielded from extreme cold more by their blubber than by fur. Their hair and outer layers of skin molt in large patches. The skin has to be regrown by blood vessels reaching through the blubber. When molting occurs, the seal is susceptible to the cold, and must rest on land, in a safe place called a "haul out". Northern males and young adults haul out during June to July to molt; northern females and immature seals during April to May.

Elephant seals have a very large volume of blood, allowing them to hold a large amount of oxygen for use when diving. They have large sinuses in their abdomens to hold blood and can also store oxygen in their muscles with increased myoglobin concentrations in muscle. In addition, they have a larger proportion of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. These adaptations allow elephant seals to dive to such depths and remain underwater for up to two hours.[22]

Elephant seals are able to slow down their heartbeat (bradycardia) and divert blood flow from the external areas of the body to important core organs.[11] They can also slow down their metabolism while performing deep dives.[11]

Elephant seals have a helpful feature in their bodies known as the countercurrent heat exchanger to help conserve energy and prevent heat loss.[11] In this system, arteries and veins are organized in a way to maintain a constant body temperature by having the cool blood flowing to the heart warmed by blood going to external areas of the animal.[11]

Milk produced by elephant seals is remarkably high in milkfat compared to other mammals. After an initially lower state, it rises to over 50% milkfat (human breast milk is about 4% milkfat, and cow milk is about 3.5% milkfat).[23]


Elephant seals have large circular eyes that have more rods than cones to help them see in low light conditions when they are diving.[10][11] These seals also possess a structure called the tapetum lucidum, which helps their vision by having light reflected back to the retina to allow more chances for photoreceptors to detect light.[10]

Their body is covered in blubber, which helps them keep warm and reduce drag while they are swimming.[11] The shape of their body also helps them maneuver well in the water, but limits their movement on land.[11] Also, elephant seals have the ability to fast for long periods of time while breeding or molting.[11] The turbinate process, another unique adaptation, is very beneficial when these seals are fasting, breeding, molting, or hauling out.[11][further explanation needed] This unique nasal structure recycles moisture when they breathe and helps prevent water loss.[11]

Elephant seals have external whiskers called vibrissae to help them locate prey and navigate their environment.[11] The vibrissae are connected to blood vessels, nerves, and muscles making them an important sensing tool.[10]

Due to evolutionary changes, their ear has been modified to work extremely well underwater.[10] The structure of the inner ear helps amplify incoming sounds, and allows these seals to have good directional hearing due to the isolation of the inner ear.[10] In addition to these adaptations, tissues in the ear canal allow the pressure in the ear to be adjusted while these seals perform their deep dives.[10]

Breeding season[edit]

Males arrive at potential breeding sites in spring, and fast to ensure that they can mate with as many females as possible.[11] Male elephant seals use fighting, vocalisations, and different positions to determine the dominant males.[11][24] By the time males reach eight to nine years of age, they have developed a pronounced long nose, in addition to a chest shield, which is thickened skin in their chest area.[11] They display their dominance by showing their noses, making loud vocalisations, and altering their postures.[11][24] They fight each other by raising themselves and ramming each other with their chests and teeth.[11]

By the time females arrive, each dominating male has already established his territory on the beach.[11] Females cluster in groups called harems, which consist of up to 50 females surrounding one alpha male.[11] Outside of these groups, a beta bull is normally roaming around on the beach.[11] The beta bull helps the alpha by preventing other males accessing the females.[11] In return, the beta bull might have an opportunity to mate with one of the females while the alpha is occupied.[11]

Birth on average only takes a few minutes, and the mother and pup have a connection due to each other's unique smell and sound.[11] The mothers will fast and nurse up to 28 days, providing their pups with rich milk.[11] The last two to three days, however, females will be ready to mate, and the dominant males will pounce on the opportunity.[11] Males and females lose up to a third of their body weight during the breeding season.[11] The gestation period for females is 11 months, and the pupping seasons lasts from mid to late summer.[11] The new pups will spend up to 10 additional weeks on land learning how to swim and dive.[11]

Life history[edit]

The average lifespan of a northern elephant seal is 9 years, while the average lifespan of a southern elephant seal is 21 years.[25] Males reach maturity at five to six years, but generally do not achieve alpha status until the age of eight, with the prime breeding years being between ages 9 and 12. The longest life expectancy of a male northern elephant seal is approximately 14 years.

Females begin breeding at age 3–6, and have one pup per breeding attempt.[26] Most adult females breed each year.[27] Breeding success is much lower for first-time mothers relative to experienced breeders.[27] Annual survival probability of adult females is 0.83 for experienced breeding females, but only 0.66 for first-time breeders indicating a significant cost of reproduction.[27] More male pups are produced than female pups in years with warmer sea surface temperature in the northeastern Pacific Ocean.[28]

Females and males utilize different feeding strategies in order to maximize their reproductive success. Males feed in benthic regions with more abundant food sources, but also more abundant predators. Females feed in pelagic regions where they are less likely to find prey, but also less likely to be preyed upon. They employ these different strategies because females are smaller, requiring less food, and it is also most important for them to have as many breeding seasons as possible in order to maximize reproductive success. On the other hand, males can adopt a riskier strategy in the hopes of gaining as much mass as possible, and thus being able to have one extremely successful breeding season.[29]


Warning sign seen in South Africa to protect molting seals while hauling out on land

Once a year, elephant seals go through a process called molting where they shed the outer layer of hair and skin.[11] This molting process takes up to a month to complete.[11] When it comes time to molt, they will haul out on land to shed their outer layer, and will not consume any food during this time.[11] The females and juveniles will molt first, followed by the sub adult males, and finally the large mature males.[11]


The main predators of elephant seals are killer whales and great white sharks.[11] Cookiecutter sharks can take bites from their skin.[11]

Milk stealing[edit]

Sheathbills, Skuas, Western Gulls, and African feral cats have been reported to steal milk from the elephant seals' teats.[30][31][32][33]


The IUCN lists both species of elephant seal as being of least concern, although they are still threatened by entanglement in marine debris, fishery interactions, and boat collisions. Though a complete population count of elephant seals is not possible because all age classes are not ashore at the same time, a 2005 study of the California breeding stock estimated approximately 124,000 individuals.[34] The animal is protected in most countries where it lives. In Mexico, the northern elephant seal is protected in the Guadalupe Island Biosphere Reserve where it was rediscovered after being believed to be extinct.[35]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "WCS Chile > Especies > Elefantes marinos". programs.wcs.org. Retrieved 27 May 2016.
  2. ^ a b c Boessenecker, RW; Churchill, M (2016). "The origin of elephant seals: implications of a fragmentary late Pliocene seal (Phocidae: Miroungini) from New Zealand". New Zealand Journal of Geology and Geophysics. 59 (4): 544–550. Bibcode:2016NZJGG..59..544B. doi:10.1080/00288306.2016.1199437. S2CID 133343398.
  3. ^ Pickford, Martin; Senut, Brigitte (1997). "Cainozoic mammals from coastal Namaqualand, South Africa". Palaeontologia Africana. 34: 199–217. hdl:10539/16409.
  4. ^ Berta, A.; Churchill, M. (2012). "Pinniped Taxonomy: evidence for species and subspecies". Mammal Review. 42 (3): 207–234. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2907.2011.00193.x.
  5. ^ Rule, James P.; Adams, Justin W.; Rovinsky, Douglass S.; Hocking, David P.; Evans, Alistair R.; Fitzgerald, Erich M. G. (November 2020). "A new large-bodied Pliocene seal with unusual cutting teeth". Royal Society Open Science. 7 (11): 201591. Bibcode:2020RSOS....701591R. doi:10.1098/rsos.201591. ISSN 2054-5703. PMC 7735334. PMID 33391813.
  6. ^ Rule, James P.; Adams, Justin W.; Marx, Felix G.; Evans, Alistair R.; Tennyson, Alan J. D.; Scofield, R. Paul; Fitzgerald, Erich M. G. (11 November 2020). "First monk seal from the Southern Hemisphere rewrites the evolutionary history of true seals". Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 287 (1938): 20202318. doi:10.1098/rspb.2020.2318. PMC 7735288. PMID 33171079.
  7. ^ De Bruyn, Mark; Hall, Brenda L.; Chauke, Lucas F.; Baroni, Carlo; Koch, Paul L.; Hoelzel, A. Rus (2009). "Rapid Response of a Marine Mammal Species to Holocene Climate and Habitat Change". PLOS Genetics. 5 (7): e1000554. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1000554. PMC 2700269. PMID 19593366.
  8. ^ Gray, John Edward (1827). "Synopsis of the species of the class Mammalia". In Baron Cuvier (ed.). The Animal Kingdom Arranged in Conformity with its Organization, by the Baron (G) Cuvier, with additional descriptions by Edward Griffith and others. Vol. 5. Printed for G.B. Whittaker. p. 180.
  9. ^ Threatened Species Scientific Committee (7 December 2016). "Conservation Advice: Mirounga leonina, southern elephant seal" (PDF). Australian Government, Department of Agriculture, Water, and the Environment. Retrieved 16 May 2020.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Macdonald, David (2009). Princeton Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Princeton University Press.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an Elephant seals. Friends of the Elephant Seal. San Luis Obispo, Calif.: Central Coast Press. 1999. ISBN 9780965877695. OCLC 44446823.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  12. ^ a b c d e Thewissen, Würsig, and Perrin, J.M., B.G., and W.F. (2009). Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Amsterdam: Academic Press.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  13. ^ Mirounga. "Elephant Seal, Elephant Seal Profile, Facts, Information, Photos, Pictures, Sounds, Habitats, Reports, News – National Geographic". Animals.nationalgeographic.com. Archived from the original on 14 June 2007. Retrieved 8 January 2009.
  14. ^ Huntley, A. C.; Costa, D. P.; Rubin, R. D. (1984). "The contribution of nasal countercurrent heat exchange to water balance in the northern elephant seal, Mirounga angustirostris". Journal of Experimental Biology. 113: 447–454. doi:10.1242/jeb.113.1.447. PMID 6527090.
  15. ^ "Elephant Seals". Parks.ca.gov. 23 May 2007. Retrieved 8 January 2009.
  16. ^ "Elephant Seal – MSN Encarta". Encarta.msn.com. Archived from the original on 28 October 2009. Retrieved 29 December 2009.
  17. ^ a b Amos, Jonathan (21 February 2006). "Elephant seals dive for science". 2006. BBC News. Retrieved 23 April 2013.
  18. ^ "Southern Elephant Seals of Sea Lion Island – A Long-term Research Project" (PDF). Eleseal.org. Retrieved 21 May 2010.
  19. ^ Gregory S. Schorr; Erin A. Falcone; David J. Moretti; Russel D. Andrews (2014). "First long-term behavioral records from Cuvier's beaked whales (Ziphius cavirostris) reveal record-breaking dives". PLOS ONE. 9 (3): e92633. Bibcode:2014PLoSO...992633S. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0092633. PMC 3966784. PMID 24670984.
  20. ^ "Census of Marine Life – From the Edge of Darkness to the Black Abyss" (PDF). Coml.org. Retrieved 15 December 2009.
  21. ^ Robinson PW, Costa DP, Crocker DE, Gallo-Reynoso JP, Champagne CD, Fowler MA, Goetsch C, Goetz KT, Hassrick JL, Hückstädt LA, Kuhn CE, Maresh JL, Maxwell SM, McDonald BI, Peterson SH, Simmons SE, Teutschel NM, Villegas-Amtmann S, Yoda K (15 May 2012). "Foraging behavior and success of a mesopelagic predator in the northeast Pacific Ocean: insights from a data-rich species, the northern elephant seal". PLOS ONE. 7 (5): e36728. Bibcode:2012PLoSO...736728R. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0036728. PMC 3352920. PMID 22615801.
  22. ^ "5.4 Seals". Classroom Antarctica. Archived from the original on 1 June 2011.
  23. ^ "Northern Elephant Seal Fact Sheet" (PDF). Coastside State Parks Association. Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 May 2013. Retrieved 26 March 2013.
  24. ^ a b Laws, R (1956). "The Elephant Seal: General, Social, and Reproductive Behavior". Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey. 13.
  25. ^ "Elephant Seals | National Geographic". National Geographic Society. 10 May 2011. Archived from the original on 23 February 2017.
  26. ^ Huber, Harriet R. (1 June 1987). "Natality and weaning success in relation to age of first reproduction in northern elephant seals". Canadian Journal of Zoology. 65 (6): 1311–1316. doi:10.1139/z87-207. ISSN 0008-4301.
  27. ^ a b c Lee, Derek E. (9 June 2011). "Effects of environmental variability and breeding experience on northern elephant seal demography". Journal of Mammalogy. 92 (3): 517–526. doi:10.1644/10-MAMM-A-042.1. ISSN 0022-2372.
  28. ^ Lee, Derek E.; Sydeman, William J. (2009). "North Pacific Climate Mediates Offspring Sex Ratio in Northern Elephant Seals". Journal of Mammalogy. 90 (1): 1–8. doi:10.1644/08-MAMM-A-130.1. ISSN 0022-2372.
  29. ^ Kienle, Sarah S.; Friedlaender, Ari S.; Crocker, Daniel E.; Mehta, Rita S.; Costa, Daniel P. (January 2022). "Trade-offs between foraging reward and mortality risk drive sex-specific foraging strategies in sexually dimorphic northern elephant seals". Royal Society Open Science. 9 (1): 210522. Bibcode:2022RSOS....910522K. doi:10.1098/rsos.210522. ISSN 2054-5703. PMC 8767210. PMID 35116140. S2CID 246018225.
  30. ^ Sazima. "Cleaner birds: an overview for the Neotropics". Museu de Zoologia, Universidade Estadual de Campinas. 10 (4).
  31. ^ Chester (1993). Antarctic birds and seals.
  32. ^ Gallo-Reynoso (2010). "Feral cats steal milk from northern Elephant Seals". Therya. 1 (3): 207–212. doi:10.12933/therya-10-14.
  33. ^ "Antarctica's Milk-Stealing, Grudge-Holding Seabirds". Boston NPR. 2016.
  34. ^ "NORTHERN ELEPHANT SEAL (Mirounga angustirostris) : California Breeding Stock" (PDF). Media.fisheries.noaa.gov. Retrieved 19 March 2022.
  35. ^ Krieger, Lisa M. (20 January 2024). "Once nearly extinct, Elephant seals staking claims". The Columbian. Retrieved 1 April 2024.

External links[edit]