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.
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.
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 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 …..
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.