Saturday, September 24, 2011

Versatile Fore-Flipper Action

When I first started reseaching the central coast elephant seals, I was told that they hardly use their fore-flippers at all. However, having observed, photographed and videotaped them for a few years, I find I have to disagree.

These human-like 'hands' are constantly in use both on shore and in the water. Some of their land uses include, the obvious scratching of various parts of their body...batting away an unwanted intruder....using the long nails as a sharp retaliatory weapon...clasping an antagonistic eseal in a hugging motion....helping haul the ungainly-on-land body across rocks and sand.

Then there's the water. Recently, I have been fortunate enough to witness and videotape how they use their fore-flippers in a rather human-like way as they bottle and twirl around in the coastal bays.

Bottling is where they seem to be floating vertically in the water but are actually arching their upper torso upright and backwards. They hold this position by moving their fore-flippers in a circular motion much as synchronized swimmers would do with their arms and hands to stay upright.

What is the purpose of bottling ? This arching of the upper torso in the water, which seems to only be carried out by male elephant seals, obviously helps them quickly discern who's approaching both above them on the beaches and the bluffs as well as in the water. Bottling seems to be the action of choice when the males of all ages first come to the coastal waters. After that it seems to be more of a sporadic event. Apart from finding out who their immediate compadres and competition are, maybe they're also preparing and strengthening their fore-flippers for the switchover to land movement. After all, for the huge adult males, hauling a couple of tons of blubber across land at the high speed of 10+ m.p.h. is no mean feat !

Watch this video as they use their fore-flippers in an almost human or dophin-like way in their aquatic maneuvers.

Click here for photos showing fore-flipper versatility.

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