Northern elephant seals spend 90% of their lives in the water in order to feed. During their foraging migrations, they dive into the water repeatedly and continuously to find food, never stopping to rest or sleep for months at a time. Females and males feed separately from each other. Males travel north, remain closer to land, and tend to return to the same locations to feed year after year. Females migrate away from the land, west to the open ocean, and are less accurate in returning to the same places each year. Male foraging behavior is characterized by benthic dives to the sea floor. By contrast, females exhibit pelagic diving while foraging which is defined by a trip to the floor, a partial ascent, another trip to the floor, a partial ascent, etc. There is some speculation as to the reason why male size is so extreme in relation to female size and some suggestions indicate that food type may be a contributing factor. Males are more likely to eat food sources that are dense in mass such as sharks and skates, while females eat foods that are less dense such as squid. These differences in foods is a likely occurence to the different locales in which they are foraging. This resource partitioning is likely to be the result of differences in body size. Males are less vulnerable to predators and are thus safer foraging in areas with more predators. Females are more vulnerable to predators and thus must forage in areas with fewer predators.
While elephant seals are on land they are fasting. They go for extended periods of time without food while they are reproducing and moulting. During this time, all nutrition and energy is broken down from fat that is stored on their bodies as blubber. It is believed that these animals never drink water. Their source of water comes from food sources and broken down fats. In addition they have developed physiological methods to retain water, such as producing a concentrated urine. Another interesting phenomenon about these mammals is the behavior of eating stones before coming ashore. The true purpose of this behavior is not known. The stones are eliminated when they re-enter the water for migration, so it has been suggested that this phenomenon is in response to the long period of fasting.
- Bonner, W. 1990. The Natural History of Seals. New York, NY: Facts On File, Inc..
- Le Boeuf, B., D. Crocker, D. Costa, S. Blackwell, P. Webb. 2000. Foraging ecology of northern elephant seals. Ecological Monographs, 70 (3): 353-382.