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  • Writer's pictureIsaac yelchin

Speaking Elephant Seal

Let's talk handsome mammals. This closeup is of a stunning hulking mass of adult male elephant seal. This guy, this brute, this model, is a beach master, which means he rules a stretch of beach with an iron neck. He even has a harem of females that he breeds with on the regular. Any other males that enter his territory will receive the beating of a lifetime. These hilarious creatures can be very easily seen along the Pacific Coast Highway about an hour north of Morro bay. You see the sign for elephant seals, park, walk just a few feet, and there are hundreds covering this beach!

Hundreds of Elephant seals relax, squeal, and cough on their private beach

These are marvelous and odd creatures. They are very serious in their interactions but from the outside, it all seems very silly. With intent, they squeal and cough and make noises not dissimilar to farts. Yet within this funny blubbering comes a complex language with seals even able to identify each other by the rhythm and cadence of their calls.

Listen here:

A few females huddle together away from the crowd

Not only do these hunks of mammals have detailed language and the ability to recognize one another through calls, but they’ve developed their own dialects. Researches at UC Santa Cruz have discovered two different dialects of the elephant seal language. The extreme southern population in the gulf of Mexico speaks quite differently from the northern population.

A mother tries to sleep while her rambunctious kids battle

This was made apparent to the scientists when migrant males entered new territories and had distinctly different calls. It is always fascinating to learn more about the languages of animals. It has led me to realize that there is still an absurd amount to learn about animal communication.

Enjoy the view of the beach masters patented trunk-like nose

The speed these dialects developed or were revived is quite remarkable. Elephant seals were historically lounging on beaches throughout California but, due to their massive size and blubber, were aggressively hunted. As we lovely humans had fished the ocean almost dry of whales in order to make oil from their blubber, we had to turn to elephant seals.

If only I could be reincarnated as an Elephant seal splayed out in the sand

Since these beasts are not the most agile on land they were slaughtered easily and turned into little lamps to light up our lovely future! Listen, I am not anti-hunting, or anti-meat, in-fact I may be headed to Korean BBQ this weekend, however, it is all about moderation. Humans, with our guns, our boats, and our tendency for competition, often take things too far.

I watched this male waddle ten feet, mate with one of his harem, and immediately fall asleep

Like we did with elephant seals, leaving this population to just a few dozen individuals. Imagine if you only had eleven other humans left, what are the chances you’d all get along? We know the elephant seals didn't, as they are some of the grumpiest beasts in the world. Thankfully there are some wonderful caring people that saved the elephant seal.

Seals will toss sand onto their backs as a form of sunscreen

In 1972 a hunting ban on elephant seals was enacted. Since then, the population of under 50 seals has made a robust and blubbery recovery. A recent estimate says the seals' population is around 150,000. I’ll let you do the math on how that worked out, however, it’s a stunning and incredible fact.

A baby breastfeeds

Sometimes all we “divine interveners” should do is just stop and step back. Mother Nature and all her creatures can fight hard if given the chance! However, this is not absolute, without scientists paying close attention, the hunting ban would never have been enacted and the seals never saved. It’s always important to look at a problem from every angle, we needed oil for our lamps, but we also needed the elephant seal for the food chain. The lamp is great in the short term, but without the elephant seal, great whites would have to turn to other prey, and your lamp might not save you then!

The beach master and his harem

All in all, it’s a great, and famous recovery story, and luckily we can easily go and enjoy these creatures! Something to think about, which might not be your first thought when you look at an elephant seal, is their quick wit. Recovering from a tiny population in the 70’s they’ve been able to continue their language and even develop dialects in this time, or maybe re-establish them. Either way, it’s fascinating to think about what factors create a dialect, are we not talking about the same things? Why pronounce them differently? Who decided? How does it all flow through an entire group of people or animals so smoothly? Go ask your dog and let me know in the comments! Please share with your friends if you enjoyed learning!

Check out this short video for more elephant seals:

All photos and sounds recorded by Isaac Yelchin

Isaac Yelchin is foremost a herpetologist. He studies lizards, frogs, newts, and the like. Specifically, he spends all day and night thinking about what it is like to be an animal. What are the animals thinking about? What is their perspective? When he should be working, he sits and stares at his pet lizard asking himself these questions.

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