Los Farallones

Dispatches from Point Blue’s field station on the Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge

Life and times of Morfydd and her weaner

One of the many joys of living on the Farallon Islands during the winter season is following the day to day lives of our northern elephant seals during their time hauled out.  When I arrived midway through the season, things were in full swing and cows and pups already littered the beaches. It took me a little while to learn how to recognize individual cows and pups.  One of my firsts and favorites was Morfydd, and now I will tell you the story of Morfydd and her weaner.  
Morfydd arrived on the island on January 26th, my first full day here.  Though she is named after a figure of Arthurian legend, Morfydd’s appears like an average cow.  Her only unique physical feature is a small X shaped scar on her left side.   We know that Morfydd pupped on SEFI the two previous seasons, but her past is otherwise a mystery.   
Four days after making her way onto land, Morfydd gives birth to a pup on Omega Terrace.  The birth is a loud and messy affair.  As nearby cows come over to investigate the new arrival, gulls descend to fight over choice bits of placenta.  Emerging tail first, the 60+ pound pup’s eyes open after a few moments.
Mofydd with her newborn
Beatbox nearly crushing the new pup
New pups face a number of dangers.  Cows that lead their pups too close to the water’s edge can wash out to sea during storms. Two years ago Morfydd made this mistake and lost a pup to a storm on Mirounga Beach.  There is also a serious risk of being trampled by bulls or cows on crowded beaches.  Just hours after being born, the newborn narrowly escapes being trampled by this year’s dominant bull Beatbox.


Morfydd’s pup growing fat and happy
A pup’s life essentially consists of nursing, sleeping, and bawling at intervals when hungry.  Fed on a rich diet of 10-55% fatty milk, Morfydd’s pup grows fat and healthy. This growth comes at a heavy cost to Morfydd who will lose approximately 16 pounds per day during her fast on shore.  By the end of the breeding season she will lose 30-40% of her body weight.   Meanwhile her pup grows into a 200-300 pound monster.
After nursing for 24 days, Morfydd mates with the dominant bull Beatbox.  Elephant seal reproduction involves a system called delayed implantation. Morfydd will conceive a new pup before heading back to sea, but her fetus will not begin to develop for several months.  Gestation (fetal development) lasts about seven months, and delaying fetal development allows Morfydd to recover weight before she puts energy into the developing fetus.  Delayed implantation also enables her to give birth at the same time each winter.


Morfydd with Strahan
The following day Morfydd attempts to leaves her pup and make her way to the ocean.  Enroute she is intercepted by the Pete and Strahan, subdominant males hanging out in the outskirts of the harem, each intending to father the next generation.  Without giving details, I’ll just say that procreation for elephant seals does not appear either sensual or consensual.  For
these males breeding opportunities are scarce.  Unless they are able to ambush departing females or sneak into the harem without being discovered by dominant males, they will not have the opportunity to breed and propagate their genetics.  Morfydd ended up returning to Sand Flat to avoid further harassment from the males lying between her and open water.  Reunited with her pup, she spends a final night on SEFI.  
Three pups prior to falling into Breaker Cove
On this same day, one of the hottest of the season, high temperatures, low wind, and the absence of puddles to soak within made the seals uncomfortable.  We think that two cows may have weaned their pups a few days early just to escape the heat.  Three other pups weaned themselves by falling into the cool water of Breaker Cove.  Additionally, three weaners rolled into the cove.  Breaker Cover is a big drop, but at least three of the youngsters swam to other beaches, and the others might be out there somewhere.

On the morning of February 25th, Morfydd abandons her pup and returns to the open ocean.  Aged 26 days her youngster, who we now affectionately call a weaner, is on his own.  A lucky few weaners may find an adoptive mother, or sneak some milk from unsuspecting cows, but the rest will rely on energy transferred from their mothers until they are able to forage for themselves.  
Morfydd’s pup freshly weaned

Morfydd’s weaner beginning to shed

Morfydd’s weaner will spend about another month at SEFI before heading out to sea.  Currently his black hair (lanugo) is shedding, revealing his new silvery coat.  As the last cows depart (only one left!), he will band together with other weaners, forming weaner pods.  These pods pass the time sleeping, vocalizing, and working on their coordination skills.  As they grow they will spend more and more time wriggling, playfighting, and learning to swim.

Continuing to shed
Checking out his flippers

If Morfydd’s weaner survives we can expect him to grow into a bull in eight years time. If he ever has the chance to rule over a harem (and few do) his reign would likely only last for a season.  However the harsh truth is that less than half of the pups born this season will survive the year.  Some will have tragic encounters with monofilament lines or sharks.  Many will simply die from malnutrition.  Despite these statistics I have faith that Morfydd’s weaner will be one of the lucky ones returning to SEFI in the future!

Snapdragon’s happy looking weaner 

Watch the movie!!!!

// Morfydd the movie from Marina Milligan on Vimeo.