Monday, February 15, 2010

The Sad, Lonely Lives of Elephant Seals

The waves are roaring today. Boulders stud this isolated rocky shore along the California coast, nearly 200 miles south of San Francisco. In the frothing surf just offshore, spars of rough-hewn granite rear 30 feet into the air. Surf detonates on the rocks and the air is filled with salty mist.

From a distance, the smooth brown boulders on the beach appear to move. This is no illusion; they are moving, and they are not stones at all. They are elephant seals, and they are among the most unique and recognizable aquatic mammals in North America. Their story is long, complicated and often tragic.

The Northern Elephant Seal (Mirounga angustirostris) is among the most unfortunate-looking of all God's creations. Whereas most of the ugliest creatures in the world are among the simplest, a cruel trick has been played by the Creator on this species of pinniped. Or more accurately, the trick was played on the females of the species. Elephant Seals exhibit remarkable sexual dimorphism, with the males growing three to four times larger than the females. Additionally, males sport a loose, dangly construction of skin and mucus membrane on the ends of their noses. The end result is what you see at right. This has always created friction between male and female members of the species: ladies, can you imagine having to roll over every morning to that? And what's more, could you imagine spending your life with a guy who could literally fart with his face? It would be impossible and you would be miserable. Luckily, Elephant Seal cows are known for their frigidity. They have been observed to complain loudly enough to get a bull four times their weight to get off of them. The protests sound like the loudiest, angriest burping you've ever heard. As we've said, these are foul and briny creatures.

In fact, Mirounga angustirostris maintains some of the worst gender relations among all mammals. There is consensus among behavioral biologists that the Elephant Seal is exceptional in this regard, though human radio commentator Rush Limbaugh runs a close second. It is not known whether Mr. Limbaugh's problems stem from his busy career as a radio host, or perhaps his eerie resemblance to an angustirostris bull. Experimental data has been inconclusive, as the sample size of Elephant Seal radio hosts is too small for meaningful statistical analysis. A photograph has been furnished at right for easy comparison.

Adding to the bull's problems are the social norms of his species. Typically males will battle on the beach for real estate and mating rights; the loser slinks off bleeding and defeated while the winner builds a harem of up to 100 females. Squabbling among the females is commonplace, as many of them are jealous bitches. In sociological surveys, Elephant Seal cows express discontent about sharing their bulls. At the same time, they steadfastly refuse to mate with bulls who haven't proven their worth in combat. The only certain thing is that these cows are uncertain about what they really want.

Bulls rarely fight to the death, but their battles are none the less brutal for it. They have developed hard hairless plates on their chests and necks for the express purpose of ramming into each other at high speed. What is meant by "high speed?" Males not infrequently reach weights of 5,000 lbs (over 2,200 kg or 3,500 Canadian kg) and, being seals, lack legs or arms or claws. So "high speed" is relative; it's like two guys in giant Sumo Wrestler suits trying to bite one another. Still, the sheer size of the combatants can lead to grievous injuries on both sides. As for the stakes, they could not be higher: the sole purpose of life is to reproduce and doing so is nearly impossible without asserting oneself in combat. The vast majority of male Elephant Seals will never mate, perishing in adolescence or dying thwarted virgins like so many Ph.D. students.

It is in response to these harsh realities that some enterprising bulls have taken steps to secure their genetic legacies. They have taken to technology, of all things, to give themselves a leg up. Or, really, any leg at all because they're fat-ass seals. In 1969, one undersized male, approximately 6 years of age, was observed to have welded tank treads onto his belly. While he lacked any real weapon systems to speak of, the treads were invaluable in giving the bull a speed edge over his competitors. This particular "adaptation" was doubly effective because it operated considerably better in a loose, sandy environment than would have a more intuitive wheel-based means of locomotion. Artist rendering at right (actual talented artwork done by Josh Lieberman).

The terrifying combat capabilities of such an animal should be obvious without explanation. Even riskier procedures have been attempted in the name of procreation, including a seal in the mid-'80s who was able (through the cooperation of one Col. Oliver North, U.S. Army) to purchase two racks of guided Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and mount them on his back. Rather than closing distance and battling his competitors in typical fashion, he merely blew them to foul-smelling blubbery smithereens from a half-mile down the beach. In the wake of a minor controversy regarding sales of proprietary U.S. Army equipment to unauthorized agents, the seal in question was placed in military custody. No un-classified visual evidence of such modifications exist and thus such claims cannot be independently verified.

In the past several years, concern among environmental activists regarding the mental and emotional health of unsuccessful Mirounga angustirostris bulls has mounted. "Our concerns ought to be obvious," asserts Greenpeace spokesman Mike Aurelia. "And they ought to be something everyone can appreciate. We've got God knows how many thousands of frustrated seals flopping around the West Coast of North America, just trying to get by and live up to the expectations their families have placed on them." The exact numbers haven't been determined, though Aurelia notes efforts by both the University of Washington and Stanford biology department to census these animals. Casual observers often assume a defeated bull simply re-locates to another beach to build his harem, but this is rarely the case. A defeated bull not only lacks for combat ability (which is why he lost in the first place), but he's likely to be physically injured and emotionally troubled by his failure. Thus, his prospects are extremely negative from the moment he loses a fight. This has been part of the evolutionary process for millions of years, but experts believe it may be changing. Specifically, in the current economic climate many established Alpha and Beta bulls are clinging to their harems more tightly than before. Incidences of extra-harem mating are at a 10-year low and as a result, younger less-established bulls simply cannot compete. "Raaawwwgggghrrrhhhrrrrr," belches one 6-year-old male who didn't wish to be identified by name. "Hwaaawwwghhhh awwwg awwwg awwg." The moist salty leavings of his outburst glisten on the underside of his proboscis. Sobering stuff indeed.

But the picture scientists paint is not an altogether gloomy one. The overall population of Elephant Seals in North America and worldwide is on the rise and has been for some time. Both Northern and Southern varieties of the seal are projected to increase their populations by up to 25% in the next decade; encouraging signs from species that were nearly extinct only a century ago. Hunters decimated populations around the globe, seeking the gold nuggets and other precious gems Elephant Seals are known to store in their stomachs. These stones, called gastroliths, assist in the seals' digestion and also serve as a convenient means to transport their considerable monetary wealth. The recovery of worldwide populations is considered a great success, but as Aurelia notes, "We have a ways to go. The modern era has been good to these animals, but the stresses of modern society and the fast pace of the 'Information Age' threatens to leave many of them behind. We owe them better than this."

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