Decoding the Signals of Giants. Exploring the Acoustic Behavior of the Northern Elephant Seal.
Pinniped Cognition and Sensory System Laboratory University of California, Santa Cruz, CA
If you find yourself on the wind-swept beaches along the California coast during the winter months, one of the surprising sounds that you might experience is one that resembles a loud pulsing sound akin to a rhythmic jackhammer. If you happen to stroll a little closer to where the sound is coming from, you would probably find yourself in the midst of an elephant seal colony, and that these impressive sounds are being emitted by a 4,000 lb male elephant seal. Male and female elephant seals can be seen up close and personal each winter, as they gather together by the thousands on islands and mainland rookeries along the coast of Mexico and California to give birth and breed after an extended time at sea.
My research has been looking at the calls produced by these incredible males, and how their sounds may vary depending on what breeding colony the come from. I have traveled to nearly every breeding site throughout their range, from Baja California up to Northern California, to record the vocalizations of these animals. Once I arrive at a new breeding site, I locate adult male seals, and individually identify and mark them using black hair dye that I place on their fur. I then wait for them to produce these loud sounds during combat - male seals will often direct their calls towards rivals as they fight over access to females. I can then record the sounds that they make, and bring these recordings back to the lab. I am currently using Wildlife Acoustic's Kaleidoscope Analysis Software to create groups of similar calls, to see whether the acoustic behavior of this species varies based on breeding location. Analysis is still-ongoing, and we expect to be finished with our analysis by the end of the year. Thanks Wildlife Acoustics!