Southern Elephant Seal

Mirounga leonina

Click to view a larger image. Click to view a larger image. mammal mammal

Museum specimen featured in the Wild exhibition
Source: Museum Victoria

Southern Elephant Seal
Image: Don Paulson
Source: photolibrary

Type: mammal

Southern Elephant Seal Southern Elephant Seal
Image: Don Paulson
Source: photolibrary

Conservation Status

Secure Vulnerable Endangered Extinct  ]

In previous centuries, Southern Elephant Seals were hunted for oil and their numbers dwindled dramatically. Populations have built up since hunting ceased but have declined again in recent years. The cause of the latest decline is unknown, but overfishing, coastal development and destructive tourism may be factors. Southern Elephant Seals are legally protected in extensive marine reserves and about 600 000 animals survive today.

WHAT THEY EAT

carnivore

Southern Elephant Seals are carnivores.

They eat fish and squid.

HOW BIG THEY ARE

Southern Elephant Seal relative size depiction as described below

Size relative to a woman and an African Elephant.

Weight:
500–4000 kg
Length:
2.7–6.2 m

Amazing Southern Elephant Seals

Southern Elephant Seals are the largest of the true seals. Like all members of this group, they have no external ears and their bodies are highly specialised for life in the water. Their limbs have evolved into flippers and their bodies are streamlined with thick fat layers for warmth and energy storage.

These seals spend most of the year at sea hunting prey in deep water. They swim by undulating their tail-like back limbs and can dive down hundreds of metres. When diving, their heart rate drops and blood flow is restricted to conserve oxygen. Dives usually last between 20 minutes and 2 hours before they surface to breathe and recover.
 
Adults leave the water twice a year, returning to well-known breeding colonies in September or November. The enormous males arrive first and fight among themselves to establish territories. Weighing up to 4000 kg, the males are fierce fighters, often covered in scars from past battles. Their size and their trunk-like noses are why they are known as elephant seals.

Female Southern Elephant Seals come ashore and join a ‘harem’ controlled by a dominant male. There they each give birth to a single 40 kg pup. The pups are completely black and feed on their mothers’ milk for about a month before she mates again and returns to sea. The pups remain onshore for another two months until they have reached 120 kg and grown a thick fur coat. Besides another month on land in January or February to moult, these seals are entirely aquatic.

Did You Know?

Southern Elephant Seals

  • vary enormously in size; males are much larger than females
  • can spend up to two hours underwater without breathing
  • spend ten months of the year at sea

WHERE THEY LIVE

Southern Elephant Seal distribution map

Southern Elephant Seals breed in colonies on South Georgia, Macquarie Island, Heard Island and the Kerguelen Islands. For most of they year they live in the cold oceans of the sub-Antarctic.

OTHER ANIMALS

Other animals from the Antarctic

Snow PetrelEmperor Penguin
Photograph of a yellow plastic Tyranasaurus Rex