Southern Elephant seal (Mirounga leonina)

Southern Elephant Seal: Catastrophic Moult

It sounds radical:  catastrophic moult!   It’s the term used for animals undergoing a dramatic variation of moulting as opposed to a more gradual process.  Skin and fur are shed at the same time.  Here photographs of a Southern Elephant seal ( Mirounga leonina) show the disheveled looks of this visitor.

Elephant seal (Mirounga leonina) moulting
Elephant seal (Mirounga leonina) tagged #16577 at Buffels in process of catastrophic moulting –  the shedding of a layer of skin and hair at the same time.  It takes about a three to five weeks for the full process to complete, so he’s here for some time yet. 

A tag reveals number: 16577 and he’s about nine years old.   Our ‘fella’ is half buried in sand and blends well into the beach environment.  He appears in good blubbery shape, with impressive chin rolls from neck to chest.  His rolly-polly physique is quite statuesque as he lounges above the tide line, but he looks a mess! The fur sheds in patches with the epidermal skin attached, revealing the new dark gray fur beneath.  The process causes increased blood flow to the surface of the skin to quickly help supply nutrients to the new fur.

Moulting Elephant seal
Elephant seal (Mirounga leonina) tagged #16577 at Buffels in process of catastrophic molting – shedding a layer of skin and hair. 

But what the hell is a Southern Elephant seal doing on our shores when the nearest colony is 1,920 kms away on Marion Island?  Apparently he has history here on these shores – tagged back in 2014 on the very beach where he has hauled out, he’s been spotted over the past 6 years roving between Paternoster and Hermanus.  A scar above his left eye, as well as the eye being injured may well be used as an immediate identifying mark.  Seeking further information on the distribution and migration of Southern elephant seals I’ve come across descriptions stating that they spend up to 10 months at seas in search of food anywhere from sub-Antarctic waters to nearly as far north as the Tropic of Capricorn.  Cape Town is at 34*S so that would explain why he’s fetched up here.

Elephant seal
Elephant seal (Mirounga leonina) tagged #16577 at Buffels in process of catastrophic molting – a layer of skin and hair is shed simultaneously over a period of 3 – 5 weeks.
Here he flips sand over his body to remain cool.

Elephant seals are the largest of the seal species and can grow to 6m in length and weigh up to 3500 – 4000 kgs.  We estimated this one to be about 4m.  As for idiosyncratic features, that proboscis is most interesting. Having watched National Geographic documentaries on TV, we contemplated our “fella’s” potential with awe, as we recalled scenes showing the epic battles between bellowing, dominant Beachmasters throwing their weight around and inflicting terrible injuries on each other in order to reign supreme.  We wondered as we observed, here witnessing this extraordinary creature, quite what was happening with that whiffling, quivering proboscis  …..

Elephant Seal
Elephant seal (Mirounga leonina) tagged #16577 hauled out at Buffels.

Photos were taken using a 100m – 400m telephoto lens and a discreet distance retained not to stress the animal.  Close-up pictures are cropped and enlarged to show details.

11 thoughts on “Southern Elephant Seal: Catastrophic Moult

  1. Liz I would love to share a photo with you of the one I found in Hermanus a few years ago to see if you think its the same one ?

  2. A fascinating process that must surely leave these animals in a rather vulnerable state. Having coming across a moulting seal only once, and that was decades ago, I find your photographs very intriguing.

    1. I’ve been reading up on these incredible creatures. Found details of research done on one of the Falkland Island colonies. What intrigues is the ‘whiffing’ proboscis which I discover is a unique ‘turbinate’ adaptation and is very beneficial for recycling moisture when they breathe which helps to prevent water loss when they haul-out to moult. They fast during this time, up to five weeks. Perhaps they’ll be most vulnerable returning to the water at that point – the main predators are great white sharks and orcas. Both of which are present in False Bay.

    1. There’s been some trauma / injury to the left eye. And it was strange how the camera showed up the way the light refracted at different angles. It appeared quite milky – but in bands. I did a bit of research and discovered that an elephant seal’s eye structure is adapted to accommodate the very great difference in the surface and underwater environment. The cornea is flatter and there is also a more powerful internal spherical lens where focusing is concentrated. Also they have reflective retinas. Apparently they have no colour vision, but are highly sensitive to light, relying on the illumination of bioluminescence in the deep ocean. What incredible creatures so well adapted to their aquatic environment.

  3. Gorgeous photos as usual Liz. Especially the header photo. The left eye does look a little strange, almost like he has cataracts. Or is this normal? I have only ever seen the northern elephant seals in California where they were breeding at the time; so many females and pups and then these large males confronting one another banging chests, it is a wonder the pups don’t get squashed!

    1. Thanks Jude. Yes the left eye looks ‘cloudy’ and there’s some scarring above the eye. The scientists who tagged him back in 2014 comment on this. Thank goodness the other eye appears to be okay. Lucky you to have seen them in California. Their bulk and tonnage must be impressive and the pups have such soulful eyes. Those males bashing each other rather remind me of heavy weights in a boxing ring slogging it out to prove strength and prestige.

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