Week 1: Let the Elephant Seals Commence

Feb 23, 2019

Although this is a day late, I hope that eventually someone will read this.

My project is working at Año Nuevo State Park with researchers from the Dan Costa Lab at UCSC. My main project is to collect data on the personalities of elephant seals and correlate that data with their evolutionary success. Basically, I’m trying to figure out if it’s better for an elephant seal to be aggressive or passive. My first week, however, was an introduction to the goings-on at Año. I went over the hill three times, and did three completely different things.

My first day was participating in the very first day of Weaner Weighing. Let me back up a bit. During the breeding season, elephant seals do not eat. Yes, for several months they sit on a beach, roll around, fight, give birth, and flip sand onto their backs. The females give birth to massive (80kg) pups who grow 4 kilograms a day. They are called pups up until the point that their mothers leave the beach to go back to sea and feed, at which point they are classified as weanlings (because they have been weaned), or, more colloquially, weaners. We weigh, tag, and mark all the weaners on the beach so we have a solid timeline of their lives at Año. That was fun, but it took 3 hours to process 9 weaners. There’re almost a thousand weaners. Sooo…

My second day was resights, basically walking the beach and recording where all the females were located on the beach, and whether or not they had pups. It was fun, but loud and somewhat smelly. Also I almost got squished but that was fun (basically someone yells “RUN!” and you just book it).

My third day was just me asking my mentor questions (because I definitely had a lot).

Over the next few weeks, I will continue to perform various tasks for the research facility, but also start field work with my advisor to collect data for my project. It’s honestly a lot of fun, and even though I have to wake up at 4:00 some days, it’s worth it to see baby elephant seals lean back and open their mouths at you like they’re adults bellowing at you, except for the fact that they can’t make any noise. Sleeping weaners pictured below.

14 Replies to “Week 1: Let the Elephant Seals Commence”

  1. Ivana B says:

    Aww! It’s great that you got to do so many different things in one week. I love the photos, keep posting them, and please don’t get squished! 🙂

  2. Dennis Woo says:

    LET THE ELEPHANT SEALS COMMENCE

    Your internship sounds like the most randomly interesting and also aerobically stimulating thing ever. I love it! Please continue to update on elephant seal attacks and colloquialisms 😉

  3. Serina K. says:

    Those seals are so adorable! I love how you get to work directly with the seals themselves and other researchers at the park. I look forward to seeing more of your research!

  4. Sameena C. says:

    OK first question: What is their diet? Second question: Are you ever scared of being close to them? Third question: What kind of data are you looking to find to aid your research in the best possible way? Otherwise, I love this 🙂

    1. Alex S. says:

      They eat fish and squid really deep (like >1000 meters), and it’s possible they target bioluminescencing creatures, but that’s ongoing research so no conclusions yet.

      Yeah they’re actually pretty freaky if you get too close (especially the females). They can move really fast, and at short distances the big males outpace you.

      The data that I collected the first week was mainly to support the second part of my research question (the survival and healthiness data about the seals). Basically we’re looking to see who’s healthy, and then correlate that to the data we collect (that I started collecting in the third week).

  5. Cindy X. says:

    Wow! Sounds like a lot of work and fun- do you also put trackers on them to see when they head off to sea? Can’t wait to read the next blog post!

    1. Alex S. says:

      Yeah, we definitely do! That’s what I did my second week – they travel incredibly far (thousands of miles all the way to the tip of Alaska) and incredibly deep (1600 meters).

  6. Abby W. says:

    Ugh they are so cute. My body goals. I can’t wait to hear more, so don’t get slam tackled just yet 🙂

  7. Samyukta I. says:

    OMG THEY’RE SO CUTE!! try not to get any more seal blood on your clothes buddy

    1. Alex S. says:

      I won’t; it’s mostly on my gloves 🙂

  8. wingra says:

    How exactly do you weigh a weaner when they are already so heavy at birth? Scare it into running onto a scale? roll it?

    1. Alex S. says:

      Literally you put a bag over its head, then it wiggles and wiggles into the bag. Then we cinch the bag shut. They basically do the work themselves; then we attach the bag to a scale and winch them up. It’s like those scales you use for luggage (where you attach a handle of the suitcase to the scale) but instead of picking the seals up by hand we use a giant tripod and a winch.

  9. Helena Vervoort says:

    This is great reading, Alex! I can just envision working on a beach being all focused on weighing a weaner, when some one yells “RUN!”

    Do you think the seals are used to seeing researcher around with gear, tripods etc? Would that influence your findings on aggressiveness, possibly?

    Regards,
    Dr. Vervoort

    1. Alex S. says:

      Honestly the seals don’t really care about us unless we get too close. What I’ve seen is that the male seals literally don’t care about you. Like you could walk next to their nose and they’d keep sleeping. We do that often because it’s almost always the males that block the pathways we’re using. The females really pay attention to you walking by with all the equipment, but they don’t generally react unless you get too close to their pups, or if you move really quickly. The weaners could care less than anyone else. Like when they’re sleeping, we can grab their flippers and tag them before they even wake up. It’s when we put the bag over their head that they react strongly, and the weaners that they’re grouping with flop away.
      But I haven’t seen that the fear remains for any lasting time, because I’ve walked by double tagged weanlings (meaning they’ve been weighed) and they could care less about me. The females with satellite tags tend to care a bit more, but that’s in line with them just being adults and not weanlings. But for the actual recordings of the reactions, we (the researchers) are generally completely out of line-of-sight of the seals, and if we are in their view we don’t move and they generally don’t look at us. I think that Rachel and/or her advisors had the same concerns as you and suggested to her that she should reduce her presence, and she’s teaching me to do that too.

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