There are two species of elephant seal, or sea elephants, as they are sometimes called: northern and southern. The southern elephant seal is the largest of all the animals in the seal family. They don't have many predators, but they can defend themselves against the few they do have.
Elephant seals have several formidable enemies. Hunted almost to extinction in the 1800s, they were sought after for their oil, which was used for lamps, paint, soaps and other uses. Luckily, the Mexican government stepped in and designed protections for them; the United States followed suit a few years later, and their numbers have multiplied dramatically. With these protections, man is no longer the elephant seal's greatest enemy. Great white sharks and, less frequently, orcas are the elephant seal's natural predators because they are the only sea creatures with teeth long and sharp enough to penetrate their thick skin. Because of their enormous bodies which are dense with blubber, most marine animals will not make an attempt to engage with the elephant seal.
Second only to its size, the biggest weapon in the elephant seal's defense arsenal is its teeth. Each elephant seal has an impressive set of 30 sharp teeth designed for grasping and holding prey. They also come in handy when fighting off marine life with cruel intentions. The males, called bulls, use them to fight off other bulls, and contests between two territorial males are frequent. The canine teeth are the sharpest and longest, and therefore the most lethal. They don't have teeth designed for chewing since they swallow their prey whole, but they can administer a nasty, perhaps even fatal, bite to another elephant seal if necessary.
Thin-skinned, easily insulted animals would never cut it in the world of elephant seals. As they grow, the males develop thick "chest shields" that they use to bash up against one another during fights. The specialized skin is made up of cells that contain keratin, the same substance humans have that makes scar tissue thicker than other skin and helps form hair and nails. Fights between bulls can be bloody and terrifying, loud and aggressive, but rarely end in death. Death can be secondary to a serious injury sustained in the fight that causes the elephant seal to lose some of its ability to hunt.
Elephant seals have some amazing skills that help when they choose "flight" over "fight." Their swimming skills include the ability to swim up to 12 miles per hour, and the ability to dive deep, about 2,000 feet. They are oxygen-dependent, but can hold their breath under water for over two hours. Their bodies are equipped with oxygen-rich blood and their heartbeat slows to a mere 4 to 15 beats per minute. (It's usually 55 to 120 beats per minute.) They also have very well-developed senses for life underwater, which is where they spend the majority of their time.
- Friends of the Elephant Seal: Frequently Asked Questions
- Naturally Speaking: Northern Elephant Seals: Physical Traits
- Alaska Fisheries Science Center: Northern Elephant Seals
- National Geographic: Elephant Seal
- Marinebio Conservation Society: Southern Elephant Seal
- ABC News: Elephant Seals Are Survivors
Michelle A. Rivera is the author of many books and articles. She attended the University of Missouri Animal Cruelty School and is certified with the Florida Animal Control Association. She is the executive director of her own nonprofit, Animals 101, Inc. Rivera is an animal-assisted therapist, humane educator, former shelter manager, rescue volunteer coordinator, dog trainer and veterinary technician.