Los Farallones

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

Meet the Cows!

You’ve met the males, now meet the seals that bring those boys to the beach – the cows! Specifically, our known-age nursing female northern elephant seals and their pups. 

There are currently 72 female elephant seals and 41 of their pups at the main colony on Southeast Farallon Island. Six of these cows are known age and have pups; we know how old they are based on our tagging database. They are usually tagged as weaners, and five of them were born here on Southeast Farallon Island, coming back most years and raising their pups here in this important haul-out in the California Current ecosystem.
Knowing the age of these nursing seals is an incredible opportunity for further study of the species, which has led to our Known-Age Cow Study, initiated in 2014 in partnership with Sonoma State University. By observing them every day throughout the season, we are able to ask and possibly answer questions about elephant seal behavior and lifespan.

  • Do older elephant seals make ‘better’ mothers?
  • Do they nurse more often?
  • Are they separated from their pups in the colony less often?
  • How many of their pups are successfully weaned? What are the pup and weaner survival rates?
  • At what age do they begin to show signs of senescence?
  • What is their approximate lifespan?

The studies take place 1-3 times a day, in one hour blocks. Every 15 minutes, each seal and their pup are observed and their behavior documented. We concentrate on nursing, vocalization (between cow and pup, and cow and other elephant seals), distance between cow and pup, and certain resting behaviors. Currently, we have seven lovely ladies we are monitoring and will be adding more as the season progresses and more known-aged cows give birth.
Rose (stamped -35, tagged in 2007)

From what we can tell, this Rose has no thorns. Seen nursing more often than not, Rose’s pup has expanded in size rapidly. She tolerates zero interruptions to nursing, so much so that she gave Pete quite the bite just yesterday as he made his way through a group of cows and pups.
 Julia Child (stamped -43, tagged in 2007)

She may not be a master in the kitchen like her namesake, but she is a master of movement around Sand Flat, the main portion of the colony. Maintaining excellent vocal control over her pup, she has managed to avoid the advances of incoming males and protect her pup from the crushing that often comes with that. 
 Bisquick (stamped -59, tagged in 2009)

Unlike Bisquick the pancake mix, this cow is not easy and fluffy. She is a fierce protector of her pup, not hesitating to yell at anyone and anything that comes in her path. A truly fearless cow, she has hel
d down the exact same spot since pupping, showing no signs of backing out of her prime location. 
 Katrina (stamped -60, tagged in 2004 and is at least 14 years old and probably older!)
Quiet Katrina and her pup maintain a graceful peace in the daily dramas of the Sand Flat colony. Often hanging out with Rose, she is one of our oldest cows, and the wisdom that accompanies age is present in her demeanor and child-rearing skills. 
 Ivy (stamped -78, tagged in 2003)

Ivy hails all the way from the colony at Año Nuevo! She has been breeding at Southeast Farallon Island since 2012. Ivy prefers the rockier but significantly less busy Omega Terrace area of the colony. No doubt this is some well-deserved rest: she was part of a satellite tracking study done at Año Nuevo, and the data from her tag shows her traveling all the way to the Gulf of Alaska. 
 Butternut (stamped -79, tagged in 2008)

Butternut is one of our younger known-aged cows in the nursing study. We actually had the pleasure of watching her pup on Omega Terrace on the 28 January 2008 – an exciting event to witness! We are hoping for the best for this young mother in raising her pup during this trying El Niño season.
 Patti Smith (stamped -80, tagged in 2011)

Patti Smith is our newest mom of the known-age group, having pupped just a couple of days ago. A big fan of waterfront property, her and her pup like to spend time near a large puddle on Sand Flat, under the watchful eye of Notch, one of the older (yet gentler) male seals. She has already gotten the hang of motherhood, having been spotted nursing more than once. 
If interested in getting regular personalized updates about our adult female and/or male elephant seals you can adopt a seal at this link: 
If you choose to support the Farallon Program in this capacity you will receive the following: 

  • an adoption certificate
  • a photo of your adult male or female seal (and her pup)
  • regular updates throughout the breeding season from our Farallon biologists (for males there will be detail to movement patterns, fight updates with other males, and which harem they protect; for females there will be detailed information on arrival dates, pup dates, how mom and pup are doing and departure dates)
  • a personalized summary of what happened with your seal at the end of the breeding season (the breeding season is from December-March)

Thank you for reading the blog and be sure to check back soon for the latest updates about life on the Farallon Islands.

Written by 2015-16 SEFI Winter Research Assistant Taylor Nairn