Elephant Seal Monitoring Season Summary: Winter 2017-2018

Season Overview

  • Continuing the trend of yearly population increase, the highest ever number of total elephant seals, 2411, was recorded on January 30th. Last year’s peak number was 1824.
  • The season had a late start with the first pup born December 26th. Last year’s first pup was born December 16th.
  • Minimal winter storms resulted in very low pup mortality. The highest pup count of the year was 1020, last year’s highest pup count was 726.
  • The colony on Drakes Beach is growing and moving farther down the beach, resulting in an expanded closure of the beach.
A large male elephant seal rears up to attack another male seal, with his large proboscis covering his face.
Alpha male engaged in a fight with a sub-adult male

NPS / Marjorie Cox, NMFS Permit No. 17152-00

A group of cows and their black pups on the beach, with a large alpha male on the right
Harem on Drakes Beach

NPS / Marjorie Cox, NMFS Permit No. 17152-00

A group of weaned pups swim in a shallow tide pool, with their heads above water.
Weaned pups swimming in a tide pool near Chimney Rock

NPS / Sean Pickton, NMFS Permit No. 17152-00

Dynamic Drakes

The elephant seal colony on Drakes Beach is growing in size, and moving farther down the beach. The original colony on Drakes was established on the beach below the overlook and is now expanding down the beach towards the visitor’s center. Concerned about the safety of visitors and seals, the park closed the entire stretch of beach from the cliff directly to the right of the visitor center parking lot to the elephant seal overlook. Researchers speculate that seals are moving from the Point Reyes Headlands colonies into the more protected Drakes Bay

Seasonal Peak Elephant Seal Counts, 2015-2018

A line graph showing that Drakes Beach cow and pup counts have increased between 2015 and 2018, however the counts at the Point Reyes Headlands have decreased.
Cow and pup counts at the peak of the breeding season at the Drakes Beach and Point Reyes Headlands colonies for 2015 - 2018.
A large colony of elephant seals on Drakes Beach, viewed from above
Drakes Beach colony from above

NPS / Marjorie Cox, NMFS Permit No. 17152-00

Research Goals

Monitoring the elephant seal population at Point Reyes is hard, but rewarding work. Researcher’s primary goal is to document the actual number of seals in the park, this is achieved by conducting bi-weekly counts over the approximately 3 month breeding season. This year researchers had good luck with the weather, and were able to complete almost of all of the planned surveys. In addition, adult male seals were dye marked at the start of the season, to track their movements around the park and their status within the colony. Flipper tags also play an important role in the park’s elephant seal work. Tags are re-sighted throughout the season, allowing researchers to learn the history of specific animals. New flipper tags are applied to weaned pups in the park, in order to track their movements over the years. A record was set this year with 406 unique animals tagged!

A researcher crouches behind a large adult male elephant seal, and applies a dye mark to its hindquarters.
Researcher applying a dye mark to an adult male

NPS / Sean Pickton, NMFS Permit No. 17152-00

A researcher kneels behind a weaned elephant seal pup, preparing to apply a tag to its hindflipper
Researcher applying a flipper tag to a weaned pup

NPS / Sean Pickton, NMFS Permit No. 17152-00

A graphic showing the annual  breeding and molting cycle of elephant seals. Dec-April: Breeding and pupping season. April & May: Adult female and juvenile molt. July & August: Adult male molt. September-November: juvenile haul out.

Seasons of the Seal

After the breeding season weaned pups will remain on the beach until April, and at that time the molting cycle for other age-classes will begin. Elephant seals and monk seals go through a “radical” or “catastrophic” molt, and are the only pinniped species to do so. This type of molt not only sheds hair, but also a layer of skin. Catastrophic molts require a lot of energy, and elephant seals will once again fast and remain on the beach for 3-4 weeks until the process finishes.

Preliminary Data

Total Elephant Seal Counts, Winter 2017-2018

Stacked bar graph of the total number of elephant seals surveyed at three locations in Point Reyes National Seashore by survey date, overlayed on a stacked area graph showing the average number of seals surveyed at the same sites between 2005 and 2017.
Total elephant seal counts this season compared to average totals from 2005-2017 at the three Point Reyes National Seashore breeding colonies. Surveys this season reveal more elephant seals than average on Point Reyes beaches starting in January. A decrease in the number of seals is continuing the trend that began Jan 31st.

Female Elephant Seal Counts, Winter 2017-2018

Stacked bar graph of female elephant seal counts at three colonies in Point Reyes in 2017-2018 by survey date, overlayed on a stacked area graph showing the average number of females surveyed at the colonies between 2005 and 2017.
Female elephant seal counts this season compared to average female counts from 2005-2017 at the three Point Reyes National Seashore breeding colonies. The total number of cows on Point Reyes beaches is significantly higher than average, and we continue to see a decline in numbers due to females leaving after weaning their pups. The highest increase from the average was seen at Drakes Beach, the Point Reyes Headlands colony is declining, and the South Beach colony numbers are close to average.

Elephant Seal Pup Counts, Winter 2017-2018

Stacked bar graph of the number of elephant seal pups counted at three colonies in Point Reyes in 2017-2018 by survey date, overlayed on a stacked area graph showing the average number of pups counted at the colonies between 2005 and 2017.
Number of elephant seal nursing pups counted at the three breeding colonies in Point Reyes this winter compared to the average number of pups surveyed at those colonies between 2005 and 2017. The first pups of the season were counted on December 28. A decline in nursing pups began February 7th at Point Reyes Headlands, Drakes Beach, and South Beach colonies, and continues to decline as pups wean.

Weaned Elephant Seal Counts, Winter 2017-2018

Stacked bar graph of the number of weaned elephant seals counted at three colonies in Point Reyes in 2017-2018 by survey date, overlayed on a stacked area graph showing the average number of weaned seals counted at the colonies between 2005 and 2017.
Number of elephant seal weaned pups counted at the three breeding colonies in Point Reyes this winter compared to the average number of weaned pups surveyed at those colonies between 2005 and 2017. The first weaned pups were recorded at the Drakes Beach and Point Reyes Headlands colonies around January 24. An increase in weaned pups continues at all of the colonies.

Weelky Updates Recap

News This Week

  • Cows continue to arrive at all sites
  • Steady increase in pup births
  • Drakes Beach closure begins

The 2018 elephant seal breeding season continues to ramp up at Point Reyes National Seashore! A closure is in effect at Drakes Beach, as we have seen a marked increase in cows and pups on the beach.

It is common to observe female elephant seals at the colony with two pups in close proximity. It may appear that the cow has birthed twins, but in fact twin births in elephant seals are extremely rare. No eyewitness accounts have ever been documented of the birth of twins in Northern elephant seals. It is more probable that one of the pups has been abandoned or moved away from it’s actual mother.

Runny Noses
Why do elephant seals seem to have perpetually runny noses? It may seem they have a severe case of the sniffles, but in fact this white fluid around their nostrils is pulmonary surfactant! Surfactant is an important substance for mammal respiratory systems, decreasing surface tension of lung fluid, and allowing for gas exchange. In deep diving pinnipeds, like elephant seals, it serves another function. Immense pressure during deep dives collapses the lungs. Pulmonary surfactant acts as a “non-stick” coating that allows lungs to re-expand as the seals rise to the surface.

News This Week

  • Cow and pup numbers increase, especially at the Drakes Beach colony
  • First weaned pups of the season seen at Drakes and Point Reyes Headlands colonies
  • Last week’s 20+ ft. swell caused pup loss at Point Reyes Headlands
  • Drakes Beach closure extended

An explosion of pup births is anticipated in the coming week, as we have a large number of pregnant cows on the beaches. Bulls are asserting their dominance and forming harems, as younger males increasingly get pushed to the outskirts of the colonies.

Drakes Beach Closure Extended
The Drakes Beach closure has been extended due to an increasing number of seals hauling out in proximity to the visitor center. Park staff are concerned for the safety of visitors and seals, and have decided to extend the closure starting January 27th. The original closure began about ½ mile down the beach to the right of the visitors center. The new closure will begin at the start of the cliffs to the right of the visitor center.

Who is alpha male on Drakes Beach? Looking down from the overlook you may be able to spot the dominant males by the dye mark applied by researchers. Currently we have 3 harems on the section of the beach visible from the overlook. D1 has been alpha since the beginning of the season and is with a large group of females on the far side of the beach. D4 has a smaller harem closer to the overlook. The third harem has an unmarked male as alpha. Dominant males can be identified by their massive size and impressive chest shields. They are usually central in a group of females, although if they have been defending their territory they may be on the outskirts.

Flipping Out
Sand flying through the air propelled by the fore-flipper of a seal, is a common sight at elephant seal colonies. Sand flipping is an important tool in thermoregulation for the seals. Wet sand displaced onto the animal’s body, results in evaporation, reducing the animal’s body temperature. The sand also acts as a sunscreen and a remedy for skin irritation. When conflicts arise, which they often do in a crowded colony, the seals also use sand flipping as a way to redirect stress.

News This Week

  • Possible peak of the season hits, and expected decline of females expected next week.

  • Mating activity has been observed.

  • Drakes Beach closure continues.

High numbers of elephant seals at the park were recorded this week, with 2,441 total seals Tuesday, January 30. While pups are still being born, we are seeing an increased number of weaned pups. As the pups get close to weaning, the females will come into estrus and mate with the males. Mating and the departure of female post weaning, may be observed from the elephant seal overlook.

Radical Re-sights!

Researchers at Point Reyes conduct weekly surveys to document tagged animals, allowing for data collection on the movement of individual animals.This week, we had two exciting tag re-sights! A pregnant cow was spotted on Drakes Beach, with a massive healed shark bite on her back. She has a bright green tag in both rear flippers, which means she was tagged at Año Nuevo, but she has been consistently seen in Point Reyes since 2013. Also on Drakes Beach, a nursing cow was spotted with a pink Point Reyes flipper tag. She was tagged as a weaned pup in 2000 at the Headlands colony, and this is the first time she has been spotted since! It is possible this 18 year old cow has recently decided to relocate to the more protected Drakes colony for the breeding season. Elephant seals often return to breed at the beach where they were born, but these two females demonstrate that this is not always the case.

Eggcelent Timing
Pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) employ a reproductive strategy called delayed implantation. This delay allows for the timing of the birth to correlate with favorable environmental conditions, regardless if mating occurs early or late in the breeding season. The total gestation period for northern elephant seals is approximately 11 months. After successful mating, female seals will delay implantation for about 3 ½ months, after which the fertilized egg will implant in the uterus and continue to develop for the next 7 ½ months until birth. Examples of other animals that delay implantation are Ursids (bears) and Mustelids (weasels and otters).

News This Week

  • Pupping begins to decline
  • Cow departures increasing
  • Males are extremely active in their attempts to mate

While a few elephant seal pups were born this week, a large number of pups have been weaned as cows leave the beach. Mating activity is prevalent, and males are keeping busy either defending their harem or trying to sneak into one. D4 and D1 are still holding down alpha positions on Drakes Beach below the overlook.

Stay Cool
Unseasonably warm weather in Point Reyes has the elephant seals desperate to cool off. Researchers have observed changes in their behavior: entire harems are moving to the water’s edge, cows are bringing their pups into the surf zone, and seals are seeking out standing water if they can. Sand flipping is rampant and seals are also extending their flippers, which allows them to release heat.

Clap Back?
The vocalizations of male northern elephant seals, also called ‘clap threats’, are often heard at colonies. Recent research out of UC Santa Cruz emphasizes the importance of these vocalizations in determining if males will engage in physical altercations. Clap threats of individual males have an acoustic signature, distinct for each individual. While alpha males will defend their harem against all subordinate male intruders, lower ranking males use these vocalizations to determine if a fight is worth the energy expenditure. The seals are able to recognize clap threats from individuals they have encountered before, remembering the signature of other seals even from previous years. If the vocalization they recognize is from a seal that dominated them in the past, the seal will avoid a fight they are likely to lose.

News This Week
  • Mating activity is prevalent at all colonies
  • Cow departures equals increase in weaned pups
  • Efforts to tag weaned pups are a top priority

Coincidentally, the height of elephant seal mating occurs during Valentine’s week in Point Reyes! Cows are leaving the beaches in droves, which occurs soon after mating. Weaned pups are left behind and will remain on the beaches for up to 12 weeks. The weaners will form pods, where they will learn together how to function in their environment. Researchers hope to tag upwards of 300 pups this season.

Against the Odds
It’s not easy being alpha male, but it’s even harder for elephant seals to achieve that coveted status. Only 5% percent of males born survive to physical maturity, and less than 1% successfully mate in their lifetime. Not being alpha does not mean that a seal will never breed. Observable on Point Reyes beaches at this time of year are the efforts of subordinate males to get their chance at mating. Subordinate males will lurk on the periphery of the harem, and when the alpha is distracted by mating or fighting off other males, they will have their chance to make their move. Non-alphas will move quickly, albeit sneakily, into the harem. It’s a risky game, as cows are less receptive to non-alpha males. Cows will often put up a noisy fight, attracting the attention of the previously preoccupied alpha, but it’s a risk worth taking.

Milking It
Gaining weight daily is the top priority of elephant seal pups. Elephant seal milk is about 34% fat, and in about 28 days pups can balloon from about 70 lbs. to 300 lbs! However, some pups can exceed 500 lbs. if they are wily enough to become “super weaners”. These extra chunky pups become milk thieves, stealing milk from cows after they have been weaned from their own mother. This is a dangerous strategy as cows are often aggressive to pups not their own. Super weaners are almost always male. The canine teeth of female pups erupt before weaning, but for males this can occur up to 4 weeks after weaning. The lack of teeth makes it easier for males to successfully thieve.

News This Week
  • Majority of elephant seal cows have bid farewell to their pups, and departed for the open ocean.
  • Very low pup mortality this season means the beaches are filling up with weaned pups.
  • Males are desperate to mate, as only a few females are left.

Pup Protectors
As cows leave the beaches of Point Reyes, a marker of their success this season is to leave behind a fat and healthy pup. The mother’s physical condition, and her ability to provide nourishment are of course important factors in successful weaning. However, the female’s behavior and ability to defend her pup are important for her pup’s survival as well. More dominant and aggressive cows are more successful at defending their pups against the bites of other females or males in the harem. Dominance also allows a cow to secure the choicest spot in the harem, often in the center of the group, where she can avoid subordinate males, rising tides, and other disturbances that could harm her pup. Older females are aggressive more frequently, and therefore more likely to hold a higher rank in the harem.

Marvelous Males
Impressive displays of stamina are on display below the Drakes Beach overlook. Alpha males D1 and D4 are still dominating, as they have since the very beginning of breeding season. D4 has been observed aggressively defending his harem against subordinate males. D1 has the largest harem on this stretch of beach, and his presence alone seems enough to keep other males away, but who knows what he’s up to when humans aren’t watching. Another amazing alpha, D2, has been harem master in Gus’ Cove (near Chimney Rock) the entire season, at the height of the season defending a harem of over 150 cows!

News This Week
  • Only 79 elephant seal cows remain in Point Reyes as of Feb. 27, down from seasonal peak of 1225.
  • Majority of weaned pups appear to be well nourished and healthy.
  • Researchers continue flipper tagging pups, and have tagged 397 unique animals so far!

Wonderful Weanlings

Now that the majority of pups born in Point Reyes are without mom, it is time for them to learn how to be an independent seal. However, achieving this independence relies on important social interactions with fellow weaned pups. Pups will practice aggressive behaviors that they will need to be successful adults. Males more frequently display mock aggressive behavior such as neck biting and body slamming, and female pups mimic the “head banter” behavior of adult females. After weaning and molting, pups will begin to move into the water, often following the lead of older pups. In shallow tidal areas weaned pups will practice swimming, foraging behavior, and breath holding. After approximately 5 weeks of swimming practice pups will be excellent divers, and be proficient enough swimmers to head out into open water to find food.

Dominating D1

Researchers were pleased to read the flipper tag of Drakes Beach alpha male D1. The tag was spotted earlier in the season, but as D1 was surrounded by cows and pups it was too difficult to read. We got our chance this past week. The green tag was from Año Nuevo, after reaching out to researchers there we found out that D1 was tagged as a pup ten years ago, and re-sighted once at Año 5 years later. It will be exciting to see if this 10 year old bull returns to Drakes Beach next year!

Elephant Seal Seasonal Monitoring Updates Home

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Last updated: March 19, 2018