What Counts in the End

iD magazine - - Contents -

Tons of Fun

For decades re­searchers have been ex­tremely puz­zled: How is it pos­si­ble that th­ese an­i­mals have man­aged to sur­vive to the present day? Again and again they ob­serve the ele­phant seal bulls ly­ing lethar­gi­cally on the sand, al­most crushed by their own weight. Even with the great­est ef­fort, it takes min­utes be­fore the meat moun­tains, which weigh sev­eral tons each, are in mo­tion. Heav­ing their cor­pu­lent body around is so de­mand­ing that the up to 20-foot-long bulls some­times fall asleep on the spot, even right in the mid­dle of their turf wars. So how can such a seem­ingly lazy bar­rel of flab suc­cess­fully hunt for food? Let alone be one of evo­lu­tion’s suc­cess sto­ries?

When re­searchers had equipped the first an­i­mals with trans­mit­ters and tracked them through the ocean with radar, they ini­tially thought that their in­stru­ments must be de­fec­tive: 300, 1,500, 3,000, up to 7,550 feet— in­deed, ele­phant seals dive deeper than prac­ti­cally any other mam­mal. Only the sperm whales and Cu­vier’s beaked whales can keep up. So that their lungs do not burst dur­ing their two-hour-long div­ing ex­cur­sions in the deep sea, ele­phant seals ex­pel all of their breath­ing air be­fore they dive and sub­sist only on the oxy­gen that’s con­tained in their blood. And re­mem­ber: That’s twice the vol­ume of blood of most other mam­mals. At the same time the be­he­moths let their heart rate drop from 90 to just 4 beats per minute. Squid, oc­to­puses, sharks, crabs, eels— a bull con­sumes around 110 pounds of food ev­ery day. Th­ese an­i­mals will search for food for nine months at a time, and in the pro­cess they travel up to 20,000 miles with the help of their very pow­er­ful tail fins. No other mam­mal is so per­se­ver­ing. Even sea tur­tles and most whales can only achieve about half that dis­tance. In all, the world’s big­gest seals spend 80% of their lives in the open ocean. Only for mat­ing pur­poses do the bulls leave their fa­vorite el­e­ment for three months and haul their 4-ton bod­ies ashore. It goes with­out say­ing that they don’t cut a very fine fig­ure there. Re­gard­less, a sin­gle bull can fa­ther up to 100 ele­phant seals in this time. Yet there are still some who would say that th­ese big bel­low­ing lumps of fat are lazy…

They weigh up to 4.5 tons and have a body mass in­dex of 138: On land ele­phant seals look like slug­gish moun­tains of meat. But in wa­ter th­ese ti­tans of adi­pose tis­sue trans­form into true masters of move­ment— and have set some of the most im­pres­sive world records in na­ture…

I’LL BE OFF, THEN… Not a sin­gle morsel of food, not a drop of wa­ter, and hun­dreds of bloody beach bat­tles with ri­vals— af­ter three gru­el­ing months on land, ele­phant seal bulls rush back to the waves and set out in search of food. The heavy­weights spend th

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