November 5, 2020
AZ Animals Staff
Elephant Seal Facts:
Distinctive Feature: Long trunk-like nose and large body
Habitat: Warm coastal waters close to land
Predators: Human, Sharks, Killer Whales
Favorite Food: Fish
Slogan: The largest species of seal in the world!
Elephant Seal Physical Characteristics:Colour: Brown, Grey, Black, Tan
Skin Type: Fur
Top Speed: 12 mph
Lifespan: 18 - 22 years
Weight: 900kg - 3,000kg (2,000lbs - 6,000lbs)
Length: 3m - 5m (10ft - 16ft)
Elephant seals can dive more than 5,000 feet into the ocean and can hold their breath for two hours.
The trunk-like nose of this seal makes it easy to see how it got its name. The average lifespan of a northern elephant seal is nine years while an elephant seal living in the Antarctic region can live from 20 to 22 years. Male seals can weigh up to 4.5 tons. They are carnivores living on a diet of squid, fish, rays, penguins, and some small species of sharks.
5 Elephant Seal Facts
• These seals spend approximately nine months of the year in the water.
• They are excellent swimmers but move awkwardly while on land.
• Male elephant seals are called bulls.
• These seals were hunted in the 19th century until they were almost extinct.
• An elephant seal becomes an adult at three years of age.
Elephant Seal Scientific Name
The scientific name for these seals is Mirounga. Mirounga, or ‘miouroung,’ is an Australian aboriginal word meaning seal. The elephant seal belongs to the Phocidae family and the class Mammalia.
There are two species of elephant seal: northern (Mirounga angustirostris) and southern (Mirounga leonina).
Elephant Seal Appearance and Behavior
These seals are covered in a layer of light or dark tan or grayish fur. While male seals have a large trunk-like nose, also called a proboscis, female seals have a nose that’s normal in size. These seals have a large, round face, dark eyes, and whiskers.
Its two short front flippers have nails on the ends that look like long, dark fingernails. Its back flippers are webbed, making this creature one of the most expert swimmers in the ocean!
Male seals are much larger than females. A male northern elephant seal can weigh as much as 4,400 pounds and grow to over 13 feet in length. A female weighs around 1,300 pounds and grows to be about 10 feet long. Alternatively, a male southern elephant seal weighs around 11,000 pounds and grows to be about 16 feet in length! A female seal of this species weighs around 2,000 pounds and grows to be about 10 feet long.
For reference, a male seal weighing 4,400 pounds weighs about the same as a rhinoceros, while a female that weighs 2,000 pounds is equal in weight to two grand pianos. It’s no wonder why most animals steer clear of these seals!
Looking at the length of these seals, a ten-foot elephant seal is equal in size to half of an adult giraffe. A 16-foot long seal is equal in length to two full-sized Christmas trees. A giant male elephant seal holds the record as the longest – measuring almost 22 feet!
The short front flippers and hind flippers of this seal all have a specific purpose. Its front flippers help these seals to change direction when swimming while their webbed hind flippers move them forward through the ocean. When on land, these seals use its front flippers to rock itself forward while dragging its hind flippers. It’s not hard to see why this seal prefers to be in the water!
Elephant seals are both solitary and social. When they are swimming in the ocean they are solitary. But, when they return to the land and join the rookery during breeding season they become social. A group of seals has many names including a herd, a bob, a colony, or a harem (females only).
Elephant seals are extremely territorial and can be very aggressive when defending their area of shore. A male seal gathers together 40 to 50 female seals, or a harem, to stay within his territory. If one male tries to invade another’s territory, it can result in a bloody, violent fight as the territory is defended. It’s also very noisy. Male seals make deep, echoing sounds similar to drum beats as they fight with another male.
Elephant Seal Habitat
Northern elephant seals live in the North Pacific near Baja California, Mexico to the Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska. Southern elephant seals live in the sub-Antarctic and Antarctic waters.
These seals migrate to the ocean spending several months hunting for food. Marine biologists have found male seals follow a similar path as they migrate while female seals choose different routes to travel in the ocean. In mid-December, these seals return to land to breed, heading back out to the ocean at the end of March.
The thick layers of fat on these seals keep them warm as they swim through the frigid waters of the ocean. Plus, they have specially developed lungs that deflate as they dive deeply into the ocean for food and refill with air when they resurface.
Elephant Seal Diet
What do elephant seals eat? Squid, rays, penguins, small shark, crabs, and fish are all on the menu of these carnivores. During their nine months or so spent in the ocean, they are rarely seen at the surface of the water. They are either swimming just beneath the surface or diving into the depths in search of food. These seals add a lot of fat to their bodies during these months. Once mating season begins, they begin a fasting period (they don’t eat).
Elephant Seal Predators and Threats
Great white sharks and killer whales are two predators of these seals. They are so large, they have very few predators in the ocean.
However, the fishing activities of humans can be a threat to these seals. They sometimes become tangled in large commercial fishing nets leading to great injury or death. Also, these seals are sometimes hit by large ships and other ocean vessels that can result in their death.
Environmental events, such as hurricanes and tropical storms, can reduce the population of elephant seals. Seal pups that are not yet strong swimmers can be swept up and killed in these weather events.
At one time, these seals were hunted by poachers for the oil in their blubber. Now, they have legal protection against poaching activities. The conservation status of elephant seals, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is least concern.
Elephant Seal Reproduction, Babies, and Lifespan
Mating season begins in December for elephant seals. They come out of the ocean and settle onshore. The male seal elephants also called bulls, arrive at the rookery before the females. Male seals fight with one another for territory and dominance. A male seal raises the top half of its body, sometimes allowing it to stand six feet tall. Two male seals hit each other with their elephant-like noses, bite, and push each other until one gives up or is so injured it can’t continue. This is a noisy, dangerous encounter!
Once the dominant male seals establish their territory, the female seals arrive from the ocean. A male seal has 40 to 50 females in his territory. A group of females is called a harem. The male mates with most of the females in the harem.
The gestation period of a female elephant seal is 11 months. Once a female seal becomes pregnant, she returns to the ocean. She’ll later come back to shore and give live birth to one baby, also called a pup. A newborn seal pup weighs around 75 pounds and is covered in black fur. The pup is able to see, hear, and move right from birth.
A mother seal nurses her pup for one month, then it begins to eat solid food. The mother leaves its pup after just one month and breeds with a male before leaving the rookery to return to the ocean. A month-old elephant seal pup must learn and practice its swimming and hunting skills on its own.
The average lifespan of a northern elephant seal is nine years, while the lifespan of a southern elephant seal ranges from 20 to 22 years. Female seals usually live longer than male seals because male seals must fight for territory and sometimes receive life-shortening injuries. These seals are also vulnerable to a variety of skin diseases.
Elephant Seal Population
The population of northern elephant seals is believed to be around 127,000. There are 26,000 living near the Mexican coast, while the remainder lives off the coast of California. There are approximately 650,000 southern elephant seals in existence.
The population of these seals is either stable or increasing. That’s good news, considering they almost became extinct in the 19th century due to poaching activity. Today, the conservation status of both species is least concern.
Elephant Seal FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
How big is an elephant seal?
A male elephant seal from the north can be as large as 13 feet long and weigh 4,400 pounds. A male southern elephant seal grows to about 16 feet and can weigh up to 11,000 pounds.
A female elephant seal living in the north is about 10 feet long and weighs around 1,300 pounds. A female elephant seal living in the Antarctic region can be as long as 10 feet and weigh around 2,000 pounds.
What do elephant seals eat - are they carnivores, herbivores, or omnivores?
Elephant seals are carnivores – eating crabs, rays, small sharks, octopus, fish, and squid. An elephant seal pup that’s just learning to hunt eats smaller fish and crabs to start.
What is the difference between an elephant seal and a walrus? Which is bigger?
If you’ve put photos of an elephant seal and a walrus side by side, you know they are similar in appearance. The main obvious difference is that a walrus has tusks, however, they also differ in size. Elephant seals are bigger than even the largest male walrus. A male Pacific walrus weighs around 1,700 pounds while a male Atlantic walrus weighs around 2,000 pounds. While male elephant seals are often at least double that.
Where do elephant seals live?
The two species of elephant seal live in different places. The northern elephant seal lives near Baja California, toward Mexico and the Aleutian Islands as well as in the Gulf of Alaska. Southern elephant seals live in Antarctic and sub-Antarctic waters. They are in the ocean for nine months a year and on land in a rookery for about three months.
Are elephant seals dangerous?
Elephant seals are not aggressive unless they are defending their territory or young. They would rather not encounter humans.
If you ever see an elephant seal, especially if it’s on land, it’s best to remain far away from it so it doesn’t consider you a threat.
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