Elephant seal (genus mirounga)

Snuggling elephant seals

This male elephant seal's proboscis is prominently displayed.

Elephant seals are exceptional animals in many ways.  One of these is their size.  A male elephant seal can weigh up to eight thousand pounds – they are, apparently, the largest member of the order carnivora.  They are called ‘elephant seals’ not for their size, but for the male’s proboscis, which I don’t think looks like an elephant’s trunk, but I guess it’s close enough for some people.

‘Elephant seal’ is actually a genus (mirounga), and refers to two species – the Southern elephant seal (mirounga angustirostris) and the Northern elephant seal (mirounga leonina).  The Northern variety are found on the North American West coast,  and they are smaller than their Southern Cousins, who appear in the Southern Hemisphere.  But they are still exceptionally big creatures.

Female elephant seals are cute

Female elephant seals are cute, though also fierce predators.

And as the world’s biggest carnivore, elephant seals have to go to exceptional means in order to feed themselves.  They can dive up to nearly 5,000 feet, and stay submerged for up to 2 hours – which is impressive, to say the least (and accurately reported by Diane Ohala).  If you are an octopus, skate, squid, eel, small shark or penguin, you should be afraid of the elephant seal who may be chasing you around the depths.

As a result, elephant seals know a lot about the ocean.  The Jet Propulsion Labs are currently working with elephant seals (and other pinnipeds) to produce a 3D model of the oceans.  They are apparently gluing transmitters to the heads of their aquatic research assistants.  I hope they are giving them lots of nice rays, skates and eels in return.

giant male elephant seal getting his transmitter from folks working with JPL

This giant male elephant seal is getting a transmitter glued to his enormous head by JPL researchers

And by ‘gluing transmitters’ I mean ‘gluing transmitters’. Per the below instructional video, a ‘powerful epoxy’ is used, and the result is similar to ‘gluing a paperback book onto the back of a 150lb human’. I don’t know about you, but I would find that to be annoying. The elephant seals must be tolerant critters, or there’d be more permanently injured marine biologists.

Updates – March 2011 – New Elephant Seal Photos!  These excellent photos were taken by Diane Ohala on the California coast.  Thanks to Diane for allowing us to post them!

Beachmaster and some girls

A big male and some lovely girls lounging on the beach

Elephant seals are cute.

Cute elephant seals

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~ by amyfou on March 19, 2011.

One Response to “Elephant seal (genus mirounga)”

  1. Thank you, AVF! This is a great summary of my favorite seal. I had meant to mention how they’re being studied to see how the heck they can dive so deep with no adverse consequences. I also learned that despite the pictures, at sea they are not very social animals and tend to go off by themselves. The groups you see on land are a mystery, apparently. One hypothesis is that they huddle together like that to mimic the pressure they feel at ocean depths. Yay for elephant seals!

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