Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Keeping their cool

The sun came out at the bluff yesterday, prodding the seals to find ways to stay cool. With their thick blubber, they are well adapted to really cold conditions, deep in the north Pacific. They move down the beach, to lie on the cooler wet sand. They raise a flipper, allowing the breeze to cool the blood flowing through it, much as elephants use the circulation in their ears to regulate internal temperature. They toss sand on themselves, to protect them from the sun.

Visitors sometimes comment that they are protecting themselves from sunburn. Certainly, the peeling molt looks like our skin when it peels off after a bad sunburn, but elephant seal skin doesn't sunburn. It's more about regulating temperature.

One of the visitors told me about his experiences as a technician in Antarctica a few years back. The Southern Elephant Seals, which are even larger than Northern Elephant Seals, would park themselves around the base, bachelors who weren't contending for Top Seal. One set himself to rest where he was in the way of moving equipment. When he hadn't moved for several days, the workers decided they'd try to take action.

They got the fork lift and moved it into position, gradually moved the fork under the seal. The seal declined to move, or pay much attention to them at all. The operator began lifting the fork, to raise the seal and move him out of the way. Instead, the back wheels of the forklift came off the ground.

The seal stayed put.

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