Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Elephant Seal Mom

As soon as the pup is born, bonding takes place between mom and pup by each smelling the other, and in so doing, imprinting each other’s scent, the only sure way to ID one another in the melee of the elephant seal colony. ( The rather helpless newborn is completely dependent on its mom for survival.)

The immediate main mission of the mom for the following 28 days is to PROTECT her pup at all costs. To this end, she likes to keep a clear space around her and her not-too-swiftly moving pup to help in the defense against aggressive seals of either sex. ( To the eager onlooker, it appears as though the moms are continually bitching and then quickly turning to reassure themselves that their pup is OK.)

Click here to see video of bickering females.

If a prospective male suitor comes over to mate with an unready and unwilling mom, she tries to lure this ardent guy away from the vicinity of her pup by wiggling her tail-end and acting as though she wants to mate. Once lured over to her, the would-be-mate finds his advances are not welcome as the come-hither wiggling stops, sand is flung in his face, and he will probably also get some sharp nips from the protective mom before she hurries back to her pup.

Another problem the mom has to guard against is her dependent pup being run over by large males charging frantically across the beach trying to escape being attacked by other large males.

Click here to see video of male charging across crowded beach.

The icy tidal Pacific Ocean water is yet another danger to the newborn as too much cold water will chill the pup to the bone and can even lead to death.

Intruders on the birthing beach that the moms try to keep at bay, include raucous and bold gulls as well as the occasional coyote looking for a quick meal of tasty pup.

The other important side to being an elephant seal mom is to get the pup to suckle. If the hungry pup has problem locating the milk supply on the huge body of the female, the mom will use a fore-flipper to keep the pup from heading up towards her head instead of going down towards her tail end where her teats are.

Sound-wise moms and pups communicate almost constantly, but if a mom wants the pup to be quiet, she will even cover the pup’s head with her mouth.

The female emits distinctly different sounds for different situations. For example: the deep bark is a warning sound whereas a series of high-pitched almost staccato sounds indicate anxiety.

Click here to listen to an anxious female.

Click here to listen to female's warning bark.

For more photos, click here.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Pups...Pups...and More Pups

Since the birthing season is now in full swing, I'm dedicating this posting to the littlest of the elephant seals...the newborn pups.

Once the mom starts her birth contractions, the birth is usually only a few short minutes away, with the pup entering this world either head first or tail-flipper first. As the gulls swoop in to get a good meal by eating up the afterbirth, and thereby keeping the beach clean, mom and her newborn pup bond by getting familiar with each other's scent. ( This is very important, especially on crowded beaches, as moms and pups often get separated in the turmoil of elephant seals constantly moving around for one reason or another. )

The first two weeks are immensely important for the survival of the newborn pups. They have two immediate life-surviving tasks to accomplish. They have to find the location of their food supply, and they have to stay warm. During their first couple of weeks, the 3-4 foot newborn fuzzy black pups are ill-equipped to stay warm in the chilly ocean waters of the Pacific. This means, that until they've built up enough blubber from mom's fat-rich milk, they can actually die from hypothermia if they get caught up in the coastal tide-waters too often. ( Maybe their heat-absorbing black fur helps keep their skinny little bodies warm until the blubber layer is built up. )

Click here to watch the awesome experience of this pup being born.

Click here to see a video of a pup shivering.

Both moms and their newborns are extremely vociferous, and the central California beaches are filled with a cacophony of their sounds throughout the birthing season.

Similar to when a human baby cries, one can only try to hazard a guess as to what is behind the loud high-pitched cries the elephant seal pups send out across the sandy, kelp-fly-filled air-waves. Mostly, they're hungry...and cry out for mom to roll over and give them some great-tasting high-fat milk. But they also cry out because they're cold from the chilly ocean tides, separated from mom, being nipped at by another elephant seal, sounding the alarm at an unknown presence, chasing off intruding gulls...or...any number of other reasons one can think up.

The pups get to enjoy the easy food supply for about 28 days. Then the milk is abruptly turned off, and they left to fend for themselves and are renamed weaners.

Scientists believe that the ratio of male to female pups born is 50-50.
So how can you tell the difference ? Well, apart from asking the pup to roll over, one can take an educated guess by looking at the shape of the head and the fore-flippers. The male's head tends to be rounder, the fore-flippers bigger, and they'll stare you down.

The birthing season, followed by the mating season is probably the busiest elephant seal time on our beaches.

Click here for more photos.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Aggressive and Domineering Alpha Males in Action

Although off to a sleepy start earlier this season, the large adult males are now competing with the sub-adult males as to who can be more aggressive as the birthing season is getting into full swing.

Usually the large males wait for the females to enter into heat before attempting to mate. ( Three weeks after the pup is born, females are in heat for about a week. ) This year, however, it seems to be more about dominance, as males of all ages are attempting to take possession of any female or youngster on shore or in the shallows. This act of aggression/dominance is also happening to females who have just given birth.

Even though more females have come ashore, their numbers seem currently to be less than in years prior, whereas the males appear to be more than plentiful.

So far, the pups look robust and healthy, and their moms are doing a great job of fiercely protecting them from other elephant seals as well as the cold waters of the Pacific.

Click here for more photos.

Click here to check out my YouTube Elephant Seal Video Channel.