Return From Extinction: The Triumph of the Elephant Seal
Return From Extinction: The Triumph of the Elephant Seal
The place on land where elephant seals gather to breed, give birth, molt (shed the outer layer of hair and skin) and rest is known as a rookery, or colony.
In this elephant seal community, the high-ranking male gets to mate with more females, becoming what is known as a beachmaster. He can be responsible for 40 to 50 females, sometimes more. This group of females is called a harem. The beachmaster protects the females and their pups from other animals, including other male elephant seals looking to mate.
Not all bulls will earn the right to be a beachmaster. Only 10 percent of males each year get the chance to mate. The ones who aren’t beachmasters sometimes lurk nearby, waiting for a chance to sneak in and mate, risking a fight with the dominant male. More often these non-dominant males hang out together, maybe to grumble about their fate in life. But the following year it will all begin again, and the previous year’s losers, now older and stronger, will get another chance at having a harem of their own.
The majority of juvenile books on marine mammals focus upon the cetaceans—whales, dolphins and porpoises. Toronto Public Library holds nine juvenile titles on walruses but only three on the elephant seal. Some of the books they hold on seals and other pinnipeds may include coverage of elephant seals, but the two species of this large mammal are really underrepresented in the literature. Richards’ book will undoubtedly introduce many readers to the northern elephant seal while also presenting a good news story of the return to abundance of an animal that was almost extinct a century ago.
Named for the large trunk-like proboscis of the adult male, the elephant seal exists in two species. The northern elephant seal that is the focus of this book breeds on islands off the coast of northwestern Mexico and California and on a handful of Californian beaches and on a few newer outlying rookeries located as far north as Race Rocks near Victoria, BC. For most of their lives, these animals lead solitary lives at sea in migratory ranges that extend to the outer range of the Alaskan Aleutian Islands.
Return From Extinction is heavily illustrated with colour photographs, many by Richards, and a couple of well-designed maps and charts. Photographs of basking seals are so numerous that they tend to be overly repetitive. A few less images would have made more room for interesting facts that populate side bars and text. Readers will marvel at details such as the percentage of fat in elephant seal milk: 50, compared with cow milk: 3.25; pups can gain 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) a day but are only nursed for about 28 days, at which time the now famished mother has to return to the ocean to feed. When on beach for birthing or the annual catastrophic molt, the elephant seals do not eat and drink. Their bodies go into a type of shut down mode to conserve moisture and energy. Studies on seal pups a month after weaning show that they may excrete as little as 2.3 fluid ounces (68 milliliters) of urine per day. In contrast, an average human pees 27 to 67 fluid ounces (800 to 2,000 milliliters) per day.
Richards recounts the story of the elephant seal in four chapters. The first provides an overview of the physical traits and behaviour of the animal. This overlaps to some extent with the third chapter that focuses upon the life cycle of the species. The second chapter, “The Elephant Seal Through the Ages”, delves into prehistory and the evolutionary ancestry of the species but concentrates on the modern period from the time when humans began commercially hunting the seal in 1846. With whales becoming rarer, the elephant seal became a replacement target because of their blubber that was rendered to make oil. By the late 1870s, the species was thought to be extinct. Fortunately for elephant seals and whales, the adoption of kerosene and later electricity replaced oil for lighting by the end of the nineteenth century. In an era before conservation ecology was practised, research institutions, including the Smithsonian, killed many of the few remaining animals for museums in the early 1900s. In 1922, a Mexican-American expedition found a colony of 262 animals on Guadalupe Island. The Mexican government made the northern elephant seal a protected species and left a battalion of soldiers to ensure that poachers did not disrespect the hunting ban. Soon the United States and Canada also prohibited killing of the species. Today, there are more than 200,000 animals. One busy rookery at Piedras Blancas, near San Simeon, CA, was first used by elephant seals in 1990 with the first pup born there in 1992. Today, docents volunteer thousands of hours to educate people who stop by to see the animals.
The final chapter, “The Elephant Seal Today”, briefly discusses current challenges, such as garbage in the ocean and climate change. Richards also describes modern scientific studies of the species using practices such as tagging and electronic tracking. A glossary defines terms that are highlighted in the text by use of italic fonts and a coloured ink. Resources listed include print books and a separate list of online resources that are age-appropriate. The finished book will include an index.
While Richards does describe most of the taxonomic details of the northern elephant seal, she does so in chunks falling into three different parts of the text. It would have been nice to also include the full taxonomy in one table or chart. Richards occasionally describes the animal in anthropomorphic terms as illustrated in the excerpt above when she writes of the non-mating males “hang[ing] out together, maybe to grumble about their fate in life.” Overall, Return from Extinction is a great addition to the literature on marine mammals of North America while also introducing some of the people and methods used in the study of these top predators.
Val Ken Lem, a life-long admirer of the natural world, is the collections lead for the Faculty of Arts at the Ryerson University Library in Toronto, Ontario.