Historical note on the northern elephant seal

Dominant male elephant seal and reluctant female

Dominant male elephant seal and reluctant female

One important fact that I didn’t have room to mention in my column on elephant seals is that they too were victims of exploitation, I’m talking major exploitation. According to the book Elephant Seals by Carole and Phil Adams, “by the end of the 1880s elephant seals were thought to be extinct, due to the harvesting by whalers and sealers for their blubber. The oil obtained from elephant seals was of a quality second only to that of sperm whales.”

So once again we “the people of the earth” decimated another species. In this case to obtain oil to light lamps and “for the lubrication of machinery, and in the manufacture of paint, soap, and candles.” Miracle of miracles, a very small group of elephant seals on Guadalupe Island managed to survive the hunting craze. There were about 20 to 100 elephant seals left and all the northern elephant seals we see today come from this remnant population.

This means that today’s elephant seals have very low genetic diversity. This could be a problem down the road if many share an unknown “weak link” in fighting off a new disease. So far they have recovered remarkably well with 2003 population estimates of 125,000 to 175,000. Thankfully, elephant seals are now protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but there’s always pollution and chemicals in the environment that could cause problems. Right now I just hope for the best.

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