The Northern elephant seal remembers…

The northern elephant seals are an impressive lot. Once endangered to the brink of extinction, they made a remarkable recovery in their numbers, thanks to their love for mating. In fact, I had also written about my visit to the Ano Neuvo state park during the breeding season of elephant seals in a previous blog post. Now, recent research shows that their intelligent adaptation of avoiding unnecessary social conflicts may also play a role in their survival.

The male northern elephant seals are known to fight fiercely to establish social hierarchy for breeding with the females. After all, the limited breeding time on land must be optimized by mating with as many females as possible. Needless to say, these fights are brutal and cause serious injuries, or even death, of the males.

But once the alpha male, the strongest one, is established, it would make sense for the beta males to somehow remember the chosen one to avoid future conflicts and sneak attacks, right?

Elephant seal illustration
Illustration by Vinita Bharat (Fuzzy Synapse)

Turns out, this is exactly what they do! A new study shows that beta males distinguish the rhythms of the calls of alpha males from those of other beta males. The researchers tested the response of beta males to recordings of the alpha male calls. If the alpha male call was unchanged or varied only slightly from the original one, the beta males fled the scene. Interestingly, if the recording was severely modified by changing the frequency of the call, the beat males recognized the “fake call” and stood their ground.

This tone-recognition of rivals is an interesting way of selecting a fight or flight strategy; a natural method for their own conservation.

I have also made a video-summary of this research from the images and videos, which I collected during my visit to their breeding grounds. Enjoy!

Note: I would like to thank Vinita Bharat for the wonderful illustration. Vinita is passionate about science communication, which reflects in her well-crafted, artistic scientific illustrations. Check out more of her illustration on Fuzzy Synapse.

Original publication

Mathevon, Nicolas, et al. “Northern Elephant Seals Memorize the Rhythm and Timbre of Their Rivals’ Voices.” Current Biology27.15 (2017): 2352-2356.

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