NORTHERN ELEPHANT SEAL – Mirounga angustirostris


Northern elephant seal facts: The northern elephant seal got its name from the male’s nose, which resembles an elephant’s trunk. Males weigh three or four times as much as females, averaging 3,750 pounds (1,704 kilograms) and measuring about 13.2 feet (4 meters). Females are about 1,122 pounds (510 kilograms) and 10.6 feet (3.2 meters) long. Males are dark brown. The thickened, pinkish throat and neck protect them against sharp teeth during fights at the rookeries, breeding grounds.

The nose can be inflated to give a bigger appearance and to make loud noises for threat displays. Females are light to chocolate brown.

Geographic range: Northern elephant seals forage in the North Pacific Ocean and breed off the coast of northern California to Baja, Mexico.

Northern elephant seal habitat: Northern elephant seals forage at sea as far north as the Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. They breed on sandy, cobble, and pebble beaches.

What does northern elephant seal eat: Northern elephant seals feed on deep-sea fish, such as Pacific whiting, ratfish, and shark, as well as squid, octopuses, crabs, and eels.

Behavior and reproduction: Northern elephant seals spend up to 90 percent of their time underwater, diving for twenty to thirty minutes, and then coming up for air for about three minutes. They have been recorded diving as deep as 1 mile (1.6 kilometers). Average diving depths range from 1,650 to 2,300 feet (about 500 to 700 meters).

In winter, bulls haul out to establish breeding territories. Pregnant cows go ashore a month later, giving birth to single pups. After nursing for about a month, females mate with the territorial bull and with other subordinate males. She then goes back to the sea, leaving the pup to fend for itself. Both sexes fast, go without food, while on land, up to three months for the males. After foraging at sea, each migrates back to the breeding grounds to molt. Each year, seals shed both old skin and hair in what is called catastrophic molt. Northern elephant seals migrate a long distance twice a year, to breed and then to molt, traveling over 6,000 miles (10,000 kilometers) each way.

Northern elephant seals and people: Northern elephant seals were thought extinct by the late 1800s due to overharvesting for its blubber, primarily used in lamp oil. Since the early 1900s, when the seals appeared in Mexico and California, the U.S. government and Mexican government have taken steps to protect them.

Conservation status: Northern elephant seals are not a threatened species.