Description & Characteristics:
Inhabitants of Antarctic and sub-Antarctic islands, Southern Elephant seals, are named for their massive size and for the trunk-like noses of the males. The biggest of the Antarctic seals, these impressive mammals were heavily exploited for their oil during the 19th and early 20th centuries by sealers, who called the animals ‘sea elephants.’ Populations have since recovered and today sightings throughout the Southern Ocean are quite common. In the summer months, one can observe ‘beach parties’ of hundreds of Elephant seals lying around ‘sunbathing’ in muddy depressions called wallows on rocky island shores.
Southern Elephant seals have silvery-brownish skin with large square-shaped heads, strong front flippers, and flipper tails. Male Elephant seals are much larger than the females. Aside from their tremendous bulk, a distinctive feature is the inflatable trunk-like proboscis of the bull, which is fully grown by its eighth year. Swift and powerful swimmers, Southern Elephant seals are cumbersome on land, having difficulty lifting their huge bodies off the ground as they haul themselves on and off the beach.
Elephant seals prey on large fishes, squid and an occasional penguin. They have have few, if any predators. Prey is caught on dives up to several thousand feet deep which can last up to two hours. Elephant seals accomplish this remarkable feat by lowering their heart rates to as little as a single beat per minute. What’s more, they only need short periods of rest at the surface before diving again.
Males and females reach breeding grounds in August and September. Males then compete quite aggressively in order to establish breeding rights. Fighting amongst these mature bulls involves repeated strikes with their trunks and teeth until one or the other submits. These clashes can become quite bloody and older males bear the scars of many such encounters. The victorious or dominant bull then becomes ‘beachmaster,’ with mating rights to a ‘harem’ of up to 50 females. Pups are born during the Austral summer and grow incredibly quickly on their mothers’ rich, 50% fat milk. By the time they’re weaned in about 3 weeks, they’ve quadrupled their weight.