Northern Elephant Seals: A Dramatic Conservation Success

Northern elephant seals were once declared extinct. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

Northern elephant seals were once declared extinct. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

By Matt Miller, senior science writer

Watching hundreds of northern elephant seals along the California coast, it can be hard to believe that these animals were almost slaughtered into oblivion.

In fact, in the 1880s, northern elephant seals were declared extinct.

Today, easily viewable colonies of northern elephant seals are testament to one of this continent’s greatest (and most unheralded) wildlife recoveries.

Northern elephant seals are dramatic animals. A large male can reach 5,000 pounds and has an extraordinarily large nose (hence its name). That nose is used to make loud roaring noises during the mating season, when males battle on beaches for females.

Young male elephant seals engage in a mock battle. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

Young male elephant seals engage in a mock battle. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

These animals live in cold water, and part that weight includes a thick layer of blubber. That blubber was used as an energy source for lamps and other lighting.

This presented a case of energy development that relied on killing living creatures. It wasn’t pretty. Elephant seals were relentlessly slaughtered, until only isolated populations remained.

After being declared extinct in 1884, a remnant population of eight animals was found on Mexico’s Guadalupe Island eight years later.

In what has to be a low point in the history of scientific expeditions, a Smithsonian team then proceeded to kill seven of those eight animals for specimens.

But elephant seals survived out of sight, with the population reduced to an estimated 200 animals. Mexico officially protected the species in 1922, with the United States following a few years later.

Sometimes, recovering an endangered species is exceedingly complicated, involving habitat protection and restoration, captive breeding and other intensive efforts. But other times, it is remarkably simple: people just need to stop killing the animals.

Northern elephant seal populations have staged a dramatic recovery. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

Northern elephant seal populations have staged a dramatic recovery. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

For elephant seals, the end of commercial slaughter was no doubt assisted by the fact that humans had moved on to other energy sources.

Northern elephant seals responded to the protection in a very, very big way. They began expanding north. In 1955, the first northern elephant seal was documented at Ano Nuevo State Park, where these photos were taken.

The first pup was born at Ano Nuevo in 1961. Four years later, males began hauling out and battling on the beaches there.

Currently, thousands of pups are born annually at Ano Nuevo, and the overall population of northern elephant seals is estimated at 100,000 animals.

The elephant seal population continues to grow by 25 percent each year in California. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

The elephant seal population continues to grow by 25 percent each year in California. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

That’s not to say they don’t face challenges. The low number of elephant seals in the late 1880s created a genetic bottleneck for the species, and studies suggest this could make them more susceptible to disease and pollution.

Some also face hazards like being tangled in fishing nets. When I was visiting Ano Nuevo State Park, researchers from the University of California – Santa Cruz diverted from their scientific duties to search for a seal reported to have netting wrapped around it.

A researcher from UC-Santa Cruz searches for a potentially injured elephant seal. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

A researcher from UC-Santa Cruz searches for a potentially injured elephant seal. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

Despite this, the California population continues to grow 25 percent each year.

You can enjoy this spectacular conservation success at several protected areas, including Piedras Blancas and Point Reyes National Seashore. Ano Nuevo remains a great place to see lots of seals. There are guided walks during the mating season, between December 15 and March 31. The seals can be visited at other times of the year and still offer great wildlife watching experiences.

I stopped by for a nice walk and some photography two weeks ago, while the seals were molting their skins, an annual occurrence. Unlike most mammals, elephant seals shed their hair all at once (what biologists call a catastrophic molt).

They may not look their best during this time, but they’re still entertaining to watch.

Be sure to follow park regulations, give the seals plenty of space, and enjoy the sight of these marine mammals – still here thanks to wildlife laws, protected areas and sound conservation practices.

Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

Matt Miller is a senior science writer for the Conservancy. He writes features and blogs about the conservation research being conducted by the Conservancy’s 550 scientists. Matt previously worked for nearly 11 years as director of communications for the Conservancy’s Idaho program. He has served on the national board of directors of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, and has published widely on conservation, nature and outdoor sports. He has held two Coda fellowships, assisting conservation programs in Colombia and Micronesia. An avid naturalist and outdoorsman, Matt has traveled the world in search of wildlife and stories.



Comments: Northern Elephant Seals: A Dramatic Conservation Success

  •  Comment from Ruben Gonzalez

    It is very pleasant to see these beautiful creatures rebounding from the brink of extinction! Volunteering for the California Wildlife Center and working to save these defenseless animals gave me much insight to their behavior and eating patterns. They deserve all the protection that we can provide.

 Make a comment




Comment

Salmon Cam Returns

We’re pleased to return Salmon Cam, a live view of spawning Chinook and coho salmon and steelhead trout.

What is Cool Green Science?

noun 1. Blog where Nature Conservancy scientists, science writers and external experts discuss and debate how conservation can meet the challenges of a 9 billion + planet.

2. Blog with astonishing photos, videos and dispatches of Nature Conservancy science in the field.

3. Home of Weird Nature, The Cooler, Quick Study, Traveling Naturalist and other amazing features.

Cool Green Science is managed by Matt Miller, the Conservancy's deputy director for science communications, and edited by Bob Lalasz, its director of science communications. Email us your feedback.

Innovative Science

Forest Dilemmas
Too many deer. Logging one tree to save another. Beavers versus old growth. Welcome to forest conservation in the 21st century.

Drones Aid Bird Conservation
How can California conservationists accurately count thousands of cranes? Enter a new tool in bird monitoring: the drone.

Creating a Climate-Smart Agriculture
Can farmers globally both adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change? A new paper answers with a definitive yes. But it won't be easy.

Latest Tweets from @nature_brains

Categories