Ellen Greenblatt: The Loudmouths Are Back

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The loudmouths rule the roost, but Ellen Greenblatt isn’t talking about the human version of boasting boors.

Male elephant seals, those 4,000 pound loudmouths, are back! Though females won’t arrive on Point Reyes beaches to give birth to pups until January, the bulls are arriving now, ready to do battle to determine the alpha-male who will establish a harem and impregnate the most females.

In this post-election season, we might learn something from male elephant seals’ posturing.

First of all, they are raucous. At first, their cacophony sounds like a random assortment of burps, belches, clicks and snorts. But scientists have known for some time that the bulls’ vocalizations are not random — they are an essential element in establishing hierarchy.

It turns out that elephant seals in the same community recognize each other’s vocalizations. In a sense, they speak — or is it snort? — the same language. And their snorting announces their identity to a community that shares memories. Dr. Caroline Casey, an expert on elephant seals from the UC Santa Cruz Pinniped Lab, reports that bulls remember the calls they heard in previous interactions. A rival who had defeated them in the past prompts a retreat, while the calls of a rival they had defeated evokes aggressive behavior.

But why all the loudmouthing? Why don’t elephant seals just fight? Once we realize that elephant seals do not eat or drink while they are on land, the answer is clear: they want to avoid energy-consuming physical battles. Mature male elephant seals have to lug around a lot of blubber, which takes a lot of energy. So, vocalizations are a kind of proxy for physical battles. Saves a lot of fighting!

Elephant seals, even the most rowdy among them, seem to accept defeat, whether they lose vocally or in physical battle.

Can elephant seals teach us something in this post-election world?

This year, many docent-led elephant seal tours, both at Point Reyes National Seashore and at Año Nuevo Beach have been canceled because of the pandemic. Elephant seals don’t know though. And if they did maybe they’d be glad that they can brash around without humans finding political significance in their behavior.

With a Perspective, I’m Ellen Greenblatt.

Ellen Greenblatt is a writer, educator, and Point Reyes National Seashore volunteer.