Friday, January 29, 2016

Meet the Cows!

You’ve met the males, now meet the seals that bring those boys to the beach – the cows! Specifically, our known-age nursing female northern elephant seals and their pups. 

There are currently 72 female elephant seals and 41 of their pups at the main colony on Southeast Farallon Island. Six of these cows are known age and have pups; we know how old they are based on our tagging database. They are usually tagged as weaners, and five of them were born here on Southeast Farallon Island, coming back most years and raising their pups here in this important haul-out in the California Current ecosystem.

Knowing the age of these nursing seals is an incredible opportunity for further study of the species, which has led to our Known-Age Cow Study, initiated in 2014 in partnership with Sonoma State University. By observing them every day throughout the season, we are able to ask and possibly answer questions about elephant seal behavior and lifespan.

  • Do older elephant seals make ‘better’ mothers?
  • Do they nurse more often?
  • Are they separated from their pups in the colony less often?
  • How many of their pups are successfully weaned? What are the pup and weaner survival rates?
  • At what age do they begin to show signs of senescence?
  • What is their approximate lifespan?

The studies take place 1-3 times a day, in one hour blocks. Every 15 minutes, each seal and their pup are observed and their behavior documented. We concentrate on nursing, vocalization (between cow and pup, and cow and other elephant seals), distance between cow and pup, and certain resting behaviors. Currently, we have seven lovely ladies we are monitoring and will be adding more as the season progresses and more known-aged cows give birth.

Rose (stamped -35, tagged in 2007)

From what we can tell, this Rose has no thorns. Seen nursing more often than not, Rose’s pup has expanded in size rapidly. She tolerates zero interruptions to nursing, so much so that she gave Pete quite the bite just yesterday as he made his way through a group of cows and pups.

 Julia Child (stamped -43, tagged in 2007)

She may not be a master in the kitchen like her namesake, but she is a master of movement around Sand Flat, the main portion of the colony. Maintaining excellent vocal control over her pup, she has managed to avoid the advances of incoming males and protect her pup from the crushing that often comes with that. 

 Bisquick (stamped -59, tagged in 2009)

Unlike Bisquick the pancake mix, this cow is not easy and fluffy. She is a fierce protector of her pup, not hesitating to yell at anyone and anything that comes in her path. A truly fearless cow, she has held down the exact same spot since pupping, showing no signs of backing out of her prime location. 

 Katrina (stamped -60, tagged in 2004 and is at least 14 years old and probably older!)

Quiet Katrina and her pup maintain a graceful peace in the daily dramas of the Sand Flat colony. Often hanging out with Rose, she is one of our oldest cows, and the wisdom that accompanies age is present in her demeanor and child-rearing skills. 

 Ivy (stamped -78, tagged in 2003)

Ivy hails all the way from the colony at Año Nuevo! She has been breeding at Southeast Farallon Island since 2012. Ivy prefers the rockier but significantly less busy Omega Terrace area of the colony. No doubt this is some well-deserved rest: she was part of a satellite tracking study done at Año Nuevo, and the data from her tag shows her traveling all the way to the Gulf of Alaska. 

 Butternut (stamped -79, tagged in 2008)

Butternut is one of our younger known-aged cows in the nursing study. We actually had the pleasure of watching her pup on Omega Terrace on the 28 January 2008 - an exciting event to witness! We are hoping for the best for this young mother in raising her pup during this trying El Niño season.

 Patti Smith (stamped -80, tagged in 2011)

Patti Smith is our newest mom of the known-age group, having pupped just a couple of days ago. A big fan of waterfront property, her and her pup like to spend time near a large puddle on Sand Flat, under the watchful eye of Notch, one of the older (yet gentler) male seals. She has already gotten the hang of motherhood, having been spotted nursing more than once. 

If interested in getting regular personalized updates about our adult female and/or male elephant seals you can adopt a seal at this link: 

If you choose to support the Farallon Program in this capacity you will receive the following: 

  • an adoption certificate
  • a photo of your adult male or female seal (and her pup)
  • regular updates throughout the breeding season from our Farallon biologists (for males there will be detail to movement patterns, fight updates with other males, and which harem they protect; for females there will be detailed information on arrival dates, pup dates, how mom and pup are doing and departure dates)
  • a personalized summary of what happened with your seal at the end of the breeding season (the breeding season is from December-March)
Thank you for reading the blog and be sure to check back soon for the latest updates about life on the Farallon Islands.

Written by 2015-16 SEFI Winter Research Assistant Taylor Nairn

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Meet the Males

You’ve had a chance to read about the human team on SEFI, but what about the seals?  The season is in full swing now so it seems like a good time to introduce some of the island’s most colourful characters- the male elephant seals.  The competitors for supremacy this year are:

Danny- isn’t he gorgeous?

Name: Danny
Age class: SA2
Year tagged: 2016

Danny isn’t showing any signs of competing for supremacy or anything else.  He is usually to be found resting his flippers over on Last Resort and generally staying out of trouble.  Maybe next year, Danny…

Lemmy shows off some fresh battle scars (photo by Taylor Nairn)
Name: Lemmy
Age class: SA2
Year tagged: 2015

Lemmy was tagged on December 28th, shortly after Motörhead’s front man had passed away, so it seemed fitting to name the seal in his honour.  Unlike his namesake, this Lemmy is a quiet character with a strong interest in napping.

11 attacking a cow
Name: ‘11’
Age class: SA2
Year tagged: one day soon

Only tagged seals can be named and we’ve been trying to tag this wily beast for weeks now.  Everyone needs a nemesis and 11 is ours.  He is always starting fights with other males and biting cows, but seems to manage to stay out of harm’s way every time Pete passes by.  Not the most peaceful seal on the beach, but 11 has the makings of a bull to be reckoned with.

Skagit having a well-earned rest
Name: Skagit
Age class: SA3
Year tagged: 2014

Skagit is a sleeper, not a fighter.  It’s a mystery to us how Skagit got his well-developed scar shield, because so far this season he has spent almost the entire time snoring on Marine Terrace.  Perhaps he’s saving his strength for later in the season; he’s certainly managed to save plenty of blubber.

Timmy - large
Name: Timmy
Age class: SA3
Year tagged: 2009

Timmy was born on SEFI in 2009, so he’s 7 now.  The note in our database from when he was tagged simply reads ‘large’.

James bond on the run from Lil’ Nibbler
Name: James Bond
Age class: SA3
Year tagged: 2014

“The name’s Bond” is one thing you won’t hear this guy saying, because, well, he’s a seal.  He is a suave ladies man though, and we can’t conclusively prove that he is not here on Her Majesty’s secret service.

Notch limbers up with some yoga
Name: Notch
Age class: sa4
Year tagged: untagged

Notch is still untagged but he gets his name from a distinctive notch in one of his hind flippers.  He’s one of the biggest seals on the beach and produces a deep, echoing boom when vocalizing, but one look from Pete or Lil’ Nibbler is usually enough to shut him up and send him scooting backwards onto Low Arch Terrace.

Lil’ Nibbler shows off his beach body
Name: Lil’ Nibbler
Age Class: SA4
Year tagged: 2013

There is nothing little about Lil’ Nibbler.  He is a big seal with a well developed proboscis and scar shield, and after a few weeks of fights this season he is looking very serious indeed.  He holds a harem in Mirounga Beach, which has the easiest access to the water of any spot in the colony.  Mirounga Beach is a risky place- four pups have been washed out by the high swells we’ve had this season. One of them survived and made it back to the beach, only to be crushed by Lil’ Nibbler as he charged down to assert himself over some younger males who were attempting to haul out there.

Pete, king of the beach
Name: Pete
Age Class: SA4/Bull
Year tagged: 2013

Pete is not the biggest seal on the beach.  He doesn’t have the heaviest body or the wrinkliest scar shield, but his proboscis is awe-inspiring and he is without a doubt the most ferocious inhabitant of Mirounga Bay.  Pete seems to be dedicated to maintaining dominance over the entire colony, often crossing all the way from Sand Flat to Mirounga Beach to chase the larger and more impressive Lil’ Nibbler into the sea.   When Pete is on the move, cows and males alike scramble out of the way and we’ve seen Lil Nibbler sporting ever larger wounds.  We think he and Pete have some bloody night-time battles and Nibbler loses them all.  You really don’t want to mess with Pete.

Holding such a large territory is a risky strategy- Pete expends a lot of energy chasing other males around the beach and the fat reserves he needs to get through the breeding season are shrinking fast.  If his strategy pays off he will father almost all of next year’s pups but if not he could wear himself out and be pushed out by another male before the end of the season. Only time will tell, but for now he is definitely the boss.

Stay tuned to catch more updates about the SEFI winter season!

Written by 2016 SEFI Winter Research Assistant Scarlett Hutchin