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14 Huge Facts About Elephant Seals

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Extreme divers and polygamous lovers, these “elephants of the sea” are some of the oddest marine mammals alive—which is saying something.

1. THERE ARE TWO SEPARATE SPECIES ...

Hit any beach from Alaska to Mexico and you just might spot a northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) colony. Of the two species, this one’s smaller in overall size—though males come with longer trunks. To spot southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina), you'll have to travel below the equator.

2. ... AND ONE NEARLY WENT EXTINCT.

Slaughtered en masse for their oil-producing blubber, the northern elephant seal was at one time close to extinction. By 1892, many assumed that this poor species had quietly disappeared forever.

However, a small breeding colony managed to endure. It was estimated that, in 1910, some 20 to 100 northern elephant seals were still alive. All of these survivors dwelled on or around Guadalupe Island off Mexico’s Baja California coast. Things finally started to turn around for the species in 1922, when the island became a biological reserve, and the seals received government protection. Since then, the global population has ballooned up to 160,000—all of whom are descended from those Guadalupe Island holdouts.

3. SOUTHERN ELEPHANT SEALS ARE HUGE.

Seals, sea lions, and walruses are collectively known as pinnipeds. Unlike most other ocean-going mammals (like whales and dugongs), these beasts aren’t fully aquatic: They clamber out of the water to rest, molt, mate, and rear pups. There are 33 known pinniped species, and the absolute biggest is the southern elephant seal. From end to end, large individuals can grow to lengths of 20 feet and weigh up to 8800 pounds.

4. MALES DWARF FEMALES.

Next to a 4.5-ton bull, female southern elephant seals look puny. In general, males are seven or eight times heavier than females and can be twice as long. For northern elephant seals, the situation is similar, but less extreme. In this species, males max out at around 13 feet long and 4500 pounds, while the heftiest females are some 3000 pounds lighter and 3 feet shorter in length.

5. ELEPHANT SEALS CAN DIVE A MILE OR MORE BELOW THE WAVES.

In 2012, marine biologists tracked a northern female’s progress as she descended to the amazing depth of 5788 feet under the surface. Elephant seals are great at holding their breath and can remain submerged for up to two hours straight.

6. THEY MAINLY EAT SQUID.

What exactly do elephant seals do during those epic dives? Grab some calamari. By dissecting stomachs from dead specimens, scientists have learned that the mammals have a squid-based diet. Elephant seals also eat fish and crustaceans—albeit less often.

7. MALES HAVE MASSIVE, INFLATABLE SNOUTS.

A male’s most conspicuous feature is, of course, something that females lack—namely, his bulbous nose, which comes with a sack-like appendage known as a proboscis. Expanding the proboscis enables an elephant seal to amplify snorts, grunts, and loud, drum-like bellows that can be heard several miles away.

8. RIVALS RECOGNIZE EACH OTHERS’ VOICES.

The proboscis’s main function is to emit noises that—ideally—ward off rival males, stopping fights before they start. Over time, a masculine hierarchy is established—but it looks like a bull can’t climb very far up the ladder until he’s backed up a few threats.

For a four year period beginning in 2009, a team from the University of California Santa Cruz conducted an experiment with some nearby elephant seals. The scientists set up shop along the beaches of Año Nuevo State Park and recorded the warning calls made by individual males who frequented the area, then broadcasted them over a speaker later.

“What we were interested in is what type of information is contained in the vocalizations produced by males and how this information is used during the breeding season,” graduate student Caroline Casey says in the above video. “We found that when we played back the call of an animal’s most familiar dominant rival, he actually moved away from the speaker.” Conversely, broadcasting grunts from a subordinate triggered the opposite reaction. In that situation, Casey says, the same male “attacked, or called at the speaker.”

But how would a bull from some completely different breeding colony react? To find out, Casey and her colleagues visited a cluster of elephant seals residing 300 miles south. By and large, the team’s recordings had no effect there. “Only three out of the 20 males that we did playbacks to moved at all,” Casey says.

The researchers concluded that a “back off!” cry means nothing if the listener doesn’t recognize the voice in question. According to Casey, “They only really know how to assess these calls if they’ve had previous interactions with [the callers].”

9. THEY CAN CONSERVE WATER USE WITH CONCENTRATED PEE.

On dry land, elephant seals often go without drinking for extended periods. To avoid dehydration, their kidneys can produce concentrated urine that contains more waste and less actual water in every drop. After a few drinks, they switch back to excreting standard pee.

10. ALPHA MALES ARE PROLIFIC BREEDERS.

A colony’s most dominant bull—also known as a “harem master”—rounds up many of its females for himself. He then more or less maintains exclusive reproductive access to just about every single one of them—that is, until a competitor dethrones him.

A massive elephant seal paternity test revealed just how prolific a harem master can be. Conducted in the Falkland Islands, this study examined one large colony over a two-year period. A whopping 90 percent of documented pups were fathered by dominant males, and harem masters produced as many as 125 offspring. On the other hand, 72 percent of subordinate males were never observed mating—not even once. Tough break.

11. THEIR MILK IS INCREDIBLY HIGH IN FAT.

When a mother elephant seal gives birth, the milk she secretes is around 12 percent fat. Two weeks later, that number increases to over 50 percent, giving the liquid a pudding-like consistency. By comparison, cow milk is only 3.5 percent fat.

12. WITHIN A SINGLE MONTH, NORTHERN ELEPHANT SEAL PUPS QUADRUPLE THEIR BIRTH WEIGHT.

Once the lactation process starts, these pups grow up fast: In just 30 days, an average pup will go from weighing 75 to 300 pounds.

13. THEY'VE DONE SOME VOICE ACTING.

In The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, scrawny, cave-dwelling Moria orcs emit an eerie battle screech. When creating their cries, sound effects designer David Farmer found an oceanic source of inspiration.

“[The] major signature sound for them was … elephant seal pups,” he said in 2010. Farmer describes the unique noise as "a nice projecting call," lending itself nicely to reverberation. "The scene in the mines of Moria at the 'Drums in the deep' are all elephant seals distanced.”

These aren't the only pinniped noises in the trilogy. According to Farmer, the muscle-clad Uruk orcs were vocally based “on sea lions, especially for the pain reactions, with tigers and leopards for more aggressive attacks.”

14. A DESTRUCTIVE ELEPHANT SEAL IN NEW ZEALAND LOVED CARS TO A FAULT.

All was peaceful in Gisborne, New Zealand—until Homer came along. Named after everyone’s favorite Simpsons character, Homer was, according to the narrator of the above video, “a 14 foot-long, 4500-pound [southern] elephant seal who likes to turn parked cars into punching bags.”

His reign of terror began in May 2000. Seemingly without provocation, Homer rose from the depths and attacked at least three cars, multiple boat trailers, a pothutukawa tree, and a trash bin. In the process, he became something of a minor celebrity, appearing on news broadcasts all over the world. Later, Homer strolled over to an unsuspecting restaurant, struck the outside transformer, and singlehandedly knocked out the establishment’s power.

Weird as it may sound, these all could have been crimes of passion. “Homer has got a bit of a problem,” Andy Bassett, a member of New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, told the BBC. “He’s actually attracted to cars, and his two tonnes rubbing on a car makes a bit of a dent. We are hoping that he will take off and go back to the sub-Antarctic and try to look for lady friends down there.”

Soon enough, Homer did indeed bid Gisborne farewell, but it’s fair to say that the townspeople will never forget him.

All images courtesy of iStock

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Pig Island: Sun, Sand, and Swine Await You in the Bahamas
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When most people visit the Bahamas, they’re thinking about a vacation filled with sun, sand, and swimming—not swine. But you can get all four of those things if you visit Big Major Cay.

Big Major Cay, also now known as “Pig Island” for obvious reasons, is part of the Exuma Cays in the Bahamas. Exuma includes private islands owned by Johnny Depp, Tyler Perry, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and David Copperfield. Despite all of the local star power, the real attraction seems to be the family of feral pigs that has established Big Major Cay as their own. It’s hard to say how many are there—some reports say it’s a family of eight, while others say the numbers are up to 40. However big the band of roaming pigs is, none of them are shy: Their chief means of survival seems to be to swim right up to boats and beg for food, which the charmed tourists are happy to provide (although there are guidelines about the best way of feeding the pigs).

No one knows exactly how the pigs got there, but there are plenty of theories. Among them: 1) A nearby resort purposely released them more than a decade ago, hoping to attract tourists. 2) Sailors dropped them off on the island, intending to dine on pork once they were able to dock for a longer of period of time. For one reason or another, the sailors never returned. 3) They’re descendants of domesticated pigs from a nearby island. When residents complained about the original domesticated pigs, their owners solved the problem by dropping them off at Big Major Cay, which was uninhabited. 4) The pigs survived a shipwreck. The ship’s passengers did not.

The purposeful tourist trap theory is probably the least likely—VICE reports that the James Bond movie Thunderball was shot on a neighboring island in the 1960s, and the swimming swine were there then.

Though multiple articles reference how “adorable” the pigs are, don’t be fooled. One captain warns, “They’ll eat anything and everything—including fingers.”

Here they are in action in a video from National Geographic:

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13 Secrets From the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London
Christine Colby
Christine Colby

Christopher Skaife is a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, an ancient fortress that has been used as a jail, royal residence, and more. There are 37 Yeoman Warders, popularly known as Beefeaters, but Skaife has what might be the coolest title of them all: He is the Ravenmaster. His job is to maintain the health and safety of the flock of ravens (also called an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy”) that live within the Tower walls. According to a foreboding legend with many variations, if there aren’t at least six ravens living within the Tower, both the Tower and the monarchy will fall. (No pressure, Chris!)

Skaife has worked at the Tower for 11 years, and has many stories to tell. Recently, Mental Floss visited him to learn more about his life in service of the ravens.

1. MILITARY SERVICE IS REQUIRED.

All Yeoman Warders must have at least 22 years of military service to qualify for the position and have earned a good-conduct medal. Skaife served for 24 years—he was a machine-gun specialist and is an expert in survival and interrogation resistance. He is also a qualified falconer.

Skaife started out as a regular Yeoman Warder who had no particular experience with birds. The Ravenmaster at the time "saw something in him," Skaife says, and introduced him to the ravens, who apparently liked him—and the rest is history. He did, however, have to complete a five-year apprenticeship with the previous Ravenmaster.

2. HE LIVES ON-SITE.

The Tower of London photographed at night
Christine Colby

As tradition going back 700 years, all Yeoman Warders and their families live within the Tower walls. Right now about 150 people, including a doctor and a chaplain, claim the Tower of London as their home address.

3. BUT HE’S HAD TO MOVE.

Skaife used to live next to the Bloody Tower, but had to move to a different apartment within the grounds because his first one was “too haunted.” He doesn’t really believe in ghosts, he says, but does put stock in “echoes of the past.” He once spoke to a little girl who was sitting near the raven cages, and when he turned around, she had disappeared. He also claims that things in his apartment inexplicably move around, particularly Christmas-related items.

4. THE RAVENS ENJOY SOME UNUSUAL SNACKS.

The Ravenmaster at the Tower of London bending down to feed one of his ravens
Christine Colby

The birds are fed nuts, berries, fruit, mice, rats, chicken, and blood-soaked biscuits. (“And what they nick off the tourists,” Skaife says.) He has also seen a raven attack and kill a pigeon in three minutes.

5. THEY GET A LULLABY.

Each evening, Skaife whistles a special tone to call the ravens to bed—they’re tucked into spacious, airy cages to protect them from predators such as foxes.

6. THERE’S A DIVA.

One of the ravens doesn’t join the others in their nighttime lodgings. Merlina, the star raven, is a bit friendlier to humans but doesn’t get on with the rest of the birds. She has her own private box inside the Queen’s House, which she reaches by climbing a tiny ladder.

7. ONE OF THEM HAS EARNED THE NICKNAME “THE BLACK WIDOW.”

Ravens normally pair off for life, but one of the birds at the Tower, Munin, has managed to get her first two mates killed. With both, she lured them high atop the White Tower, higher than they were capable of flying down from, since their wings are kept trimmed. Husband #1 fell to his death. The second one had better luck coasting down on his wings, but went too far and fell into the Thames, where he drowned. Munin is now partnered with a much younger male.

8. THERE IS A SECRET PUB INSIDE THE TOWER.

Only the Yeoman Warders, their families, and invited guests can go inside a secret pub on the Tower grounds. Naturally, the Yeoman Warder’s Club offers Beefeater Bitter beer and Beefeater gin. It’s lavishly decorated in police and military memorabilia, such as patches from U.S. police departments. There is also an area by the bar where a section of the wall has been dug into and encased in glass, showing items found in an archaeological excavation of the moat, such as soldiers’ discarded clay pipes, a cannonball, and some mouse skeletons.

9. … AND A SECRET HAND.

The Byward Tower, which was built in the 13th century by King Henry III, is now used as the main entrance to the Tower for visitors. It has a secret glass brick set into the wall that most people don’t notice. When you peer inside, you’ll see it contains a human hand (presumably fake). It was put in there at some point as a bit of a joke to scare children, but ended up being walled in from the other side, so is now in there permanently.

10. HE HAS A SIDE PROJECT.

Skaife considers himself primarily a storyteller, and loves sharing tales of what he calls “Victorian melodrama.” In addition to his work at the Tower, he also runs Grave Matters, a Facebook page and a blog, as a collaboration with medical historian and writer Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. Together they post about the history of executions, torture, and punishment.

11. THE TOWER IS MUPPET-FAMOUS.

2013’s Muppets Most Wanted was the first major film to shoot inside the Tower walls. At the Yeoman Warder’s Club, you can still sit in the same booth the Muppets occupied while they were in the pub.

12. IF YOU VISIT, KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR MONEY.

Ravens are very clever and known for stealing things from tourists, especially coins. They will strut around with the coin in their beak and then bury it, while trying to hide the site from the other birds.

13. … AND ON YOUR EYES.

Skaife, who’s covered in scars from raven bites, says, “They don’t like humans at all unless they’re dying or dead. Although they do love eyes.” He once had a Twitter follower, who is an organ donor, offer his eyes to the ravens after his death. Skaife declined.

This story first ran in 2015.

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