Wednesday, February 21, 2018

NOT Ella

The Marine Mammal Center rescued the first elephant seal pup of the season. The MMC volunteers named the pup Kickoff, for kicking off the season.

He (or she, sex not yet determined) is far too thin. He appears to have molted his black natal pelage, so he's had some nursing experience.

Diana Kramer, site manager for the San Luis Obispo facility in Morro Bay, notes that Kickoff shows the “peanut head” (dip between head and shoulders), prominent hip bone area, and loose baggy skin that are typical of starving pups. "This indicated to us Kickoff was significantly underweight and needed rescue," she said. 

These mothers are showing some indications of the loss of blubber in their necks. They are all thin after nursing their pups.
Kickoff will get the supportive care he needs and be released when he is able to manage on his own. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Beach changes

Ella is one of many weaned seals on the beach now. They are collecting themselves into pods.

Some have not completed their first molt yet. Others have, and look like young seals, like the one on the right.


The few mothers who remain on the beach are thin from nursing their pups.


They will soon join their sisters back in the ocean, feeding and gaining blubber.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Weaners

Ella is one of many weaners on the beach now. I can't tell which one she is. She doesn't have any distinctive markings, so one weaner looks pretty much like the next.
She and the other weaners will stay on the beach for two months or so. Right now, they are resting and playing. They won't have anything to eat until they get out into the water and embark on their first migration. This is their first long fast.
As they sleep on the beach and cavort in the surf, their metabolism is changing. They spend the next eight to ten weeks without food, living off that blubber. Their bodies convert some of it into muscle. They also increase the amount of blood and the oxygen-carrying capacity of their muscles, important adaptations to allow them to dive deep. The black coats they were born with are replaced with lighter tan and silver coats.
Weather continues warm and sunny, no rain in the forecast for the next two weeks. So warm that today, the seals moved close to the water to stay cool. As the tide came in, the pups and their mothers barked and flapped around. They were upset, but the pups that were too close to the water were big enough to get themselves up the beach and out of trouble. I think they were all probably okay.  

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Visiting the seals

My monthly column about the seals appears in The Cambrian in the last issue of the month:
http://www.sanluisobispo.com/news/local/community/cambrian/cambrian-opinion/article196370769.html

You hear them as soon as you get out of the car. It’s pup time at Piedras Blancas. More than 5,000 pups will be born in the rookery, which extends from beyond the light station in the north to about two miles south of the viewpoint.

Most pups are born at night, but you might be fortunate enough to be watching when one is born on the beach.
Each pup is accompanied by a mother, and mature males hover, awaiting the opportunity to mate. It’s one of the busiest months on the beach, and the most active.
Females are still arriving to give birth. Look for seals that are urgently tossing sand on their backs. It doesn’t have much to do with the process, but seals seem to do it when they are stressed.

Gulls scream and flap around new births, so follow them to the newborn. They consume the afterbirth, part of nature’s recycling. The beach would be disgusting without them cleaning it up.

Once born, the pups need to start nursing. The first pup was born on the south end of the beach Dec. 16, so that pup will be the first one weaned. Look for rotund, fat pups. Some will learn to steal milk from other mothers, ballooning up to even more than the usual 300 pounds. Those 500-pounders are superweaners.

Although mothers and pups bond to each other at birth, barking and sniffing at each other, it’s far from a perfect system. Eighty percent of pups nurse on at least one mother other than their own. Not every pup survives, and those bereaved mothers may adopt one or more strays. Some mothers are particular and chase pups other than their own away, but most are tolerant. Elephant seal mothers have never been observed to give birth to more than one pup at a time.
Nursing more than one pup puts the nursing couple in jeopardy. Mothers don’t eat while they are nursing. They produce the milk from their blubber, losing two pounds for every pound the pup gains. Stray pups are nursing from a limited source.
It appears to even out. Around 95 percent of pups at Piedras Blancas survive to be weaned. Younger mothers may gain experience by nursing more than one pup. Pups of experienced mothers are more likely to survive.
As pups are weaned, mothers come into estrus, heat, like dogs. They mate before they return to the ocean, thin and in need of food. They’ll spend three moths feeding before they return to the beach with some of their blubber reserves restored.

Estrus and mating spark battles between males. Most dominance interactions are simple: a challenge and a retreat. But with breeding rights at stake, males are willing to fight. They bump chests and rip at each other’s chest shield, the crinkled skin around the neck, with their teeth. Battles can be bloody. Dominant males take no notice of pups or mothers as they chase each other across the beach. Pups can be separated from their mothers, a serious problem and the single most common cause of pup death. Pups can even be killed as males land on top of them in their determination to be the most dominant, or to mate with the mother.

Watch as two bulls challenge each other, and their conflict ripples through the rest of the seals. With new females arriving, pups born, pups being weaned, mothers mating and departing, the scene is constantly changing.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Molting

Ella continues to molt her blackcoat. And, from this photo, appears to be a male.

He's staying close to the edge of the bluff. That keeps him out of the way of mating, which is now frequent among the adult seals. As the pups wean, their mothers go into estrus and become receptive to mating. Females mate with more  than one male before they return to the ocean.
Females typically protest, whether they are in estrus or not.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Molting

Ella was difficult to find this morning, but I located her rotund form close to the bluff. She's out of the fray of newborns and their mothers here. She's molting the blackcoat she was born with, for her first mature coat.


She'll have countershading, dark on her back and light on her underside. It's an ocean camouflage that will help her blend in with the dark depths when predators above look down at her, or the light sky when those below her look up.

Between a high tide and high surf warning, the beach was inundated this morning. The seals were flustered, trying to get away from the waves, but not very effective in doing anything about it.
More rain is expected tonight. The rain isn't really a problem, but it does pool on the beach under the culvert pipes that drain from the ranch.


Some found dry land and rest, even in difficult times.


Monday, January 15, 2018

Ella is weaned

Diana Kramer, director of The Marine Mammal Center San Luis Obispo facility, which is actually in Morro Bay, Was out at Piedras Blancas and posted this report:

Today we found Ella who weaned this weekend! We were pretty confident it was her (or him) because she was right by post nine as usual and the only big fat weaned pup! 



She looks great, nice and robust and was enjoying resting on the beach. You can really see her size in the pic with the smaller pup in the background!  


Some elephant seal drama in her corner, though, with one big male lumbering through chased by another male. The losing male woke her up from her nap with a big bop to the head as he scooted through, but she made it through ok! 



It looks like Ella is aiming to be a super weaner, because we caught her (or him) checking out some other females to see is if she could get away with stealing some milk!