Nature's Sumo Wrestlers
March 15, 2007 4:07 PM   Subscribe

Nature's Sumo Wrestlers. Hundreds of thousands of northern elephant seals once inhabited the Pacific Ocean. They were slaughtered wholesale in the 1800s for the oil that could be rendered from their blubber. By 1892, only 50 to 100 individuals were left. Today estimates are that about 150,000 roam the Pacific Ocean. And they are extraordinary animals - the males can average 1,800 kg and 5 meters in length. Mirounga angustirostris spends eight to ten months a year in the open ocean, diving 1000 to 5000 feet deep for periods of fifteen minutes to two hours, and migrating thousands of miles, twice a year, to its land based rookery for birthing, breeding, molting and rest. Once on the beach, they survive up to 3-4 months with almost no food or water. You can spy on them at through the live cam at Ano Nuevo State Reserve from 9am to 9pm (EST) though at this point, it’s mostly only the pups that are still on the beach as most of the adults have headed back to sea. Also, they do not like to be woken up.
posted by otherwordlyglow (28 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Frankly I'm surprised there aren't more deaths per year of tourists who don't realize how fast those fat lumps (the seals) can move. I used to live just south of the San Simeon rookery, and every time I stopped to see the seals there's either be some amateur photographer telling his wife to get just a little closer to the seal, or a pack of near-feral youth with sticks trying to get a reaction from the seals.
posted by lekvar at 4:19 PM on March 15, 2007


Holy crap, the last link (the youtube video) makes all extreme sports seem like wussy little merry go round rides.
posted by Sukiari at 4:23 PM on March 15, 2007


Yeah they do move fast. I saw them about two weeks ago and it's really shocking (and almost nightmare-ish) how fast they can travel on dry, hilly sand dunes. Though they are somewhat oblivious of people until you're right next to them. That's one of the reasons they were over-hunted: it's easy to walk up quietly behind one and stick him with a big spear. You'd better have good aim though!
posted by otherwordlyglow at 4:28 PM on March 15, 2007


Frankly I'm surprised there aren't more deaths per year of tourists who don't realize how fast those fat lumps (the seals) can move.

Oh hell yeah. They have giant signs showing seal skulls and teeth, and bloody photos of male seals fighting for territory and mates. And there's tons of people just walking up to them...

I remember when we first saw the beaches, telling my wife, "Hey honey, you know how I like to do stupid insane shit that makes you nervous? I'm telling you right now, I would never, ever, ever screw around with an elephant seal. So, relax."
posted by frogan at 4:31 PM on March 15, 2007


I toured Ano Nuevo in January. They're violent. They're adorable. Seeing a giant curve of meat snore melodiously from partial hibernation is the closest thing to living anime I've experienced.

The docent mentioned that the historical herds birthed on islands, not the mainland. There were too many looming grizzly bears.

She also mentioned the pups have attracted great white sharks to the wind-surfing community's killer spots. bummer!
posted by ioesf at 4:55 PM on March 15, 2007


Man, they sure are ugly SOBs. I love how they use their nose-appendage-thing to help them move.

Good post.
posted by Afroblanco at 4:58 PM on March 15, 2007


Afroblanco: Thanks, it's my very first! Yeah the nose is odd; only the males have it and apparently it helps them produce that low motorcycle-exhaust-pipe noise they make to frighten off the other dudes.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 5:03 PM on March 15, 2007


Natioanal Geographic is putting up quite a number of web cams covering some rather interesting sights. If you sign up for their
Wildcam Newsletter they do inform you by e-mail of their new and existing webcams. Currently they also have one on the Platte River in NE. that was mentioned last year and later this month they are supposed to do another cam on Zakouma National Park in Chad.
posted by featherbender at 5:08 PM on March 15, 2007


ObscureAnimalFactFilter: Feeding on its mother's rich milk (55% fat), the pup grows from approximately 75 pounds at birth to 250-350 pounds in less than a month, during which, the mother does not eat. Imagine transferring hundreds of pounds of your body to your child in a month and then - swimming to Alaska. It's not the alpha males that're tough.
posted by ioesf at 5:13 PM on March 15, 2007


As an avid outdoorsman, I can honestly say, "that is as close as I need to get to those bad dudes." Nice post!
posted by winks007 at 5:16 PM on March 15, 2007


Imagine transferring hundreds of pounds of your body to your child in a month and then - swimming to Alaska. It's not the alpha males that're tough.

Yeah and as a further obscure animal fact, the females breed before they leave the island. However, the fertilized egg with which they leave the beach, lies dormant for about four month as a single layer blastocyst, floating freely in the uterus. After about four months, when the female has had a chance to regain strength from feeding, the blastcyst implants and only then resumes growing. Weird.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 6:25 PM on March 15, 2007


Crap. No comma needed after "beach" above. And four months in the second sentence.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 6:28 PM on March 15, 2007


Maybe we'll take a day trip and head up to Ano Nuevo and check it out first hand. Now, where's my poking stick?

Just kidding, I don't mess with marmosets and they're cute(ish) little furry critters. I would never mess with an elephant seal, not even on a double dog dare.

I wonder if anyone's let the Jackass folks know about them yet? I'd pay a buck or two to see Steve-O torn crushed by some pissed off seals.

Nice post! And thanks for the extra info in the thread!
posted by fenriq at 7:42 PM on March 15, 2007


Fun fact: Pointing at a YouTube video of an elephant seal and brightly proclaiming to your wife, "That's you!" is a BAD IDEA.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:44 PM on March 15, 2007 [4 favorites]


Oh, now I understand why Robocop is bleeding.
posted by Goofyy at 9:07 PM on March 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


I don't like elephant seals because when they fight they end up crushing the pups all over the place. I hear a third of the pups in a given seal population are killed by fighting males.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 9:43 PM on March 15, 2007


So one day about twenty years ago I was out visiting my parents, who have a house on a very sheltered bay in British Columbia, the kind of bay with thick mudflats and a lot of ducks. Quiet, calm, still water, reflections. Like, if Edward Hopper painted wildlife. But on this visit, there was a weird sort of hissing, asthma sound coming from the waterside, so I wandered down to the dock to see what was up. Pulled up onto the flats beside the little dock there lay flopped an enormous elephant seal. It seemed to be having some troubles breathing, and its skin was quite mangy. In fact, it had open sores that were oozing. I thought a fisherman might have shot it with a shotgun. It wasn't doing well. So I called up the SPCA.

SPCA guy came, scratched his head. We knew it was an elephant seal based on its nose, but what was it doing deep in this little bay? And did they always breath noisy like that? And did they always have kinda crusty skin sores? Neither of us had been that up close with one before. It was rearing its head up from time to time but couldn't maintain eye contact with us for long. We decided it was pretty sick and something had to be done. SPCA guy went to get a gun.

His footsteps up the gangway seemed to waken up the elephant seal and it groaned its way around, humped into deeper water, and started to swim off. After about 100 yards it got tired and headed back in, and beached in front of the neighbour's place. When SPCA guy came back with his gun, I pointed it out to him. Off we went.

So, we ran into the neighbour on the way by as we were walking through his property with the gun, and informed him that there was a sick elephant seal on his beach that was needing shooting. He came along to see for himself.

So we went down to the beach and SPCA guy shot elephant seal between the eyes with the rifle. We autopsied it and found it was chock full of parasites. The stomach was just a wad of worms the size of a basketball. Might have been what was making it groan, or might just have been opportunistic on a seal sick for some other reason. Either way, we figured we'd done the right thing.

Though now we had a ton of dead elephant seal on the beach in front of the house on a hot springtime day. I had a little runabout and set about to get some line and drag the seal out of the sheltered bay and off to some less inhabited spot. But halfway through that chore I thought to myself, "You're an archaeologist for chrissake. You study bones. You need bones from an elephant seal. Don't waste these elephant seal bones". So I called up the bone lab folks who work down the hall, and said, "I have a dead elephant seal on the beach in front of my parent's neighbour's house. Want it?"

A couple of hours later bone lab folks arrived with knives and a garbage bin. And rubber gloves. We cut the seal up, cut all the flesh off its bones, trying not to cut the bones themselves. A fresh skeleton is really tightly bound together with ligaments and tendons and it was hard work. The spinal column and tissues alone must have weighed fifty pounds. We found the bullet between its shoulder blades, two feet inside the animal.

Now we had a fresh elephant seal skeleton in a garbage can that we would give to the dermestid beetles, who do a great, gentle job of cleaning off dead flesh without harming the bone. That's how we process all our comparative skeletal collection. Bone lab folks went off to get that process started.

So that leaves about 500 pounds of elephant seal flesh and blubber in this sunny little cove. On a falling tide. Being so sheltered, the tides might never take this mess out. And I defy anyone to tie a line onto a waist high pile of elephant seal blubber. OK, I can deal with this. I got a wheelbarrow and some totes and hauled it up onto land. Dug a hole the size of a fridge and dumped the blubber and flesh and entrails into it. Covered it up, felt good. Science.

Overnight, the neighbours dog found this little elephant seal grave of offal, and dug into it. Rolled in it. Dragged chunks of flesh out, rolled in those. Ate some of it, puked some, shat some. Rolled in that. "That's why they call them "dogs"". Dog went home. Neighbour called me: "I think you better do something about that rancid pit of elephant seal blubber".

But what? So, I got a bunch of chicken wire and dug the top of the earth off the grave, then laid down a four-ply layer of chicken wire, staked into the ground. Then I piled the dirt back on. Then got more dirt and made a little mound. Then a big mound. Packed the dirt down, and then piled brush over top. And gave the dog a bone to even things up.
posted by Rumple at 10:26 PM on March 15, 2007 [90 favorites]


"I don't like elephant seals because when they fight they end up crushing the pups all over the place. I hear a third of the pups in a given seal population are killed by fighting males."

That's so awesome.
posted by Sukiari at 11:16 PM on March 15, 2007


I'm guessing you've either no sense of smell Rumple, or you have an iron-clad stomach. Either way, wonderful anecdote!
posted by ArkhanJG at 12:33 AM on March 16, 2007


Flagged as fantastic, Rumple.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:32 AM on March 16, 2007


We cut the seal up, cut all the flesh off its bones, trying not to cut the bones themselves. A fresh skeleton is really tightly bound together with ligaments and tendons and it was hard work.

I do necropsies for the local marine mammal stranding network, and know what you mean. Fortunately, we don't have elephant seals (although pilot whales are similarly difficult to dissect.)
posted by nekton at 6:46 PM on March 16, 2007


Awesome post and comments
posted by rosswald at 10:37 PM on March 16, 2007


The video in the first link has been removed. :^(
posted by deborah at 8:02 PM on March 17, 2007


Thanks for the post otherwordlyglow, watched the video a couple of days ago, enjoying those hulking beasts with floppy schnozzes that remind me of Watto in Star Wars, Attack of the Clones.

Rumple, what a marvellous comment and poignant tale, told tenderly and yet with a lovely dry-humored twinkle. The dog digging up and rolicking in the mess part was hilarious. I can only imagine the neighbor's mood seeing -and smelling- their dog like that.

My younger sister is also an archeologist and I think she'll get a kick when I forward your story to her.
posted by nickyskye at 6:21 PM on March 18, 2007


The video in the first link has been removed. :^(

oops. Sorry.... I found it again at what I assume is the source: And it's better quality, too!
posted by otherwordlyglow at 9:54 AM on March 19, 2007


I like this bit from the wikipedia article:

The bulls engage in dramatic fights of supremacy to determine which few bulls will achieve a territory and harem. While fights are not usually to the death, they are brutal and often with significant bloodshed and injury; however, in many cases of mismatched opponents, the younger, less capable males are simply chased away, often to upland dunes, where they will rest up and contemplate their martial strategy for the next year.

Heh.
posted by delmoi at 7:42 AM on April 9, 2007


Rumple, that was an awesome comment!
posted by OmieWise at 7:50 AM on April 9, 2007


We autopsied it and found it was chock full of parasites. The stomach was just a wad of worms the size of a basketball.

That is incredibly disgusting and remarkably fascinating. I wish every thread on Metafilter were comprised of such anecdotes.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:14 PM on April 9, 2007


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