Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Butterball Weaners

Despite the extraordinarily aggressive behavior of many of the moms this birthing season, most of the pups have flourished and many are now entering the stage of weanerdom. ( The pups are renamed weaners when the mom turns off the milk spigot after about 4 weeks of nursing and heads out to sea to feed and replenish her lost weight, leaving her offspring on shore to fend for itself. )

The biggest danger to the pups this birthing season has not been severe storms or amorous males looking to mate but the unusally pugnacious actions of many of the moms. These females have been quick to dash across several yards of beach to bite or even pick up and toss pups through the air with extreme regularity as can be evidenced by the large number of cuts and bite marks on nearly all the pups/weaners.

Maybe because the alpha males have successfully kept at bay what few love-struck males have tried to gallop across the beaches to mate with unwilling females, the nursing pups and their moms have largely remained uninterrupted over the bulk of the birthing season.

( It's not that the males intend harm to the pups, but their intrusions create unrest and force the moms and pups to keep moving around, cutting into nursing times and causing them to use up precious calories.)

Click here to see video of pups/weaners trying to wiggle their way out from under a huge bull.

In the photos, you can see how truly huge some of these weaners have become. Some of them have even almost attained the length of their moms in just a few short weeks of gorging themselves !
( Since so many of the weaners are big, round and comical this year, I feel tempted to nickname them butterballs.)

Click here for weaner and pup photos.

Nevertheless, in the last few days, more males have been starting to show up, and now the previously half-hearted mating attempts are getting more serious. At least these males are starting to achieve their goals with the now more complacent younger adult females before gettting run off the beaches by this year's more-than-usual protective alpha males or other large males intent on getting their share of the mating. ( Scientists claim that the females enter into estrus about 3 weeks after giving birth. )

Click here for photos of males in action.

Click here for video of various mating attempts.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Protecting Pups from High Tides

With the birthing season in full swing, I thought I should cover some of the ways the elephant seals try to protect their pups when huge ocean swells combined with high tides temporarily take over the beaches.

Some females often place themselves between their pup/s and the sea. Some try to find a high spot like a good bed of kelp. Some try to move up creek beds or low-lying bluffs. Some just keep moving around.

If a pup does get taken out by a surge, however, the next wave will usually bring it right back in. When a pup gets swept out, its frantic mom will usually dash off into the surf in search of her offspring to guide it back to shore. Not only do the moms take action but even the males can oftentimes be seen getting into the act of helping out by guiding the pups back towards shore.

Click here to see video from a recent high surge event.

Since I've been researching the elephant seals, I often hear misleading statements about various aspects of their behavior. Because of these many misconceptions, I've decided to voice my thoughts on some of these based on my observations.

Below are some of the beliefs that I believe should be addressed.

Belief #1: Pups can't swim
False: Pups can swim...after all they are marine mammals born with the innate ability to swim. However, they don't have the necessary blubber to keep them warm. So if they get taken out in the tidal surges too often during their first couple of weeks of life, the very chilly waters of the Pacific Ocean along the central coast of California can cause them to suffer from hypothermia. This, of course, causes an inability to move resulting in their drowning.

Belief #2: Males kill pups
False: The males I've observed over the past several years tend to show a lot of tenderness towards the pups and try to avoid running over them when they're moving at full charge. ( The few times I've seen a pup getting run over by a massive bull, the youngster has bounced right back up protesting loudly ! )

Belief #3: Females are highly protective of their pups
True: Most females go to great lengths to protect their pups from any perceived threat, such as anything/anyone encroaching within a few feet of them. This aggressively protective behavior can include going after pups separated from their moms and the milk supply. Some females will even go so far as to bite and/or remove other pups from their vicinity by tossing them into the air. On the other hand, some females will take on pups that they didn't give birth to and nurse and protect them.

Belief #4: Males will mount anything
True: All males except the most senior ones always seem to be ready to mount any size, any age, any sex elephant seal at any given time. Not that they ever get anywhere in these desires...it just seems to be a part of their nature.

Belief #5: Adult Male Elephant Seals are always extremely aggressive
False: Adult males are generally not aggressive. For the most part, they tend to be rather mellow. There are times, though, when the mood strikes, that they will charge and attack other males after a series of ritualistic aggressive moves. Even on land, they can move extremely fast and cover several hundred yards at a good clip. Although hard blows can be exchanged and blood drawn by bites from their long canine teeth, truly serious injury or death are not par for the course.

Belief #6: They throw sand on themselves to stay cool
False: The reasons elephant seals throw sand on themselves is no doubt multifold. However, the belief that it helps them stay cool doesn't seem all that logical. ( If they're really hot, there's plenty of cool water in the Pacific. ) From my observations, one of the primary purposes of covering themselves partially with sand is a signal to others to leave them alone. ( They may even believe that the sand makes them invisible much as the ostrich seems to feel when it buries its head in the sand. ) Females also throw sand in the face of an amorous male as a deterrent to keep him and his unwanted advances at bay. Thirdly, females often bury the afterbirth by tossing sand on it to hide from the raucous ever-hungry gulls.

Returning to this birthing season's happenings...more adult males have come in. Yet, for the most part, they're still in a very mellow mood this time around with major bouts of fighting not taking place, and many females have still to give birth.

Click here to see recent photos.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Dramatic Elephant Seal Pup Births

Even though, many of the traditionally lively birthing beaches have not been richly populated as of yet as both the big adult males and females have been slow in returning to our shores, enough have showed up to contribute to this suddenly very busy early-birthing season. Last year at this time, males temded to be in the majority, but this year on some of the beaches, females and their newborn pups are just about the sole inhabitants.

Due to this sudden high concetration of pregnant females, I have been fortunate enough to witness two amazing births so far. The first one was a struggle taking about twenty minutes to complete, whereas the other that took place at sunset was extremely fast...probably less than five minutes. Watch as both pups come out tail flippers first. Then watch as the mom and her newborn pup bond by smell.

Click here to watch an exciting birthing video as a female elephant seal struggles to bring forth her pup.

Click here to watch a fascinatingly easy birth at sunset.