Scientists Witness Act Of Altruism By Male Elephant Seal For The First Time

February 10, 2024

Today's good news story comes from Point Reyes National Seashore, California.

In a rare and extraordinary display of altruism, an adult male northern elephant seal at Point Reyes National Seashore in California was observed coming to the rescue of a distressed young pup, according to a study published in the journal Marine Mammal Science.

elephant seal
By "Mike" Michael L. Baird, CC BY 2.0 (source)

The remarkable incident was documented by scientists Sarah G. Allen and Matthew J. Lau, who were conducting surveys of seals in the area. The scientists witnessed a female and her pup being separated by tidal wash and waves at Drakes Bay. The pup, less than two weeks old, was at risk of being swept away by the undertow.

The female desperately called out to her stranded pup, unable to pursue it as the waves drew the young seal further from the shore. It was then that the unexpected hero of the story emerged – an alpha male elephant seal from a nearby harem.

The male, identified as the alpha of the small harem, responded to the distress calls and charged into action. Ignoring the rebuff from the female, he swiftly swam out to the struggling pup. Instead of using force, the male used his body to gently guide and push the pup toward the safety of the shore, strategically providing shelter during the waves' ebb and flow.

For nearly 20 minutes, the male worked tirelessly, gradually bringing the pup back to the female waiting on the beach. The heartwarming reunion took place just 4 meters from where the pup had been separated from its mother.

elephant seal
Sequence of events of a male elephant seal retrieving a pup in distress | Photos by Sarah G. Allen & Matthew J. Lau | Source: Wiley Online Library

The researchers noted that the male's altruistic act went beyond the typical behavior observed in marine mammals. In many cases, male elephant seals focus on mating and rarely engage in parental care. This exceptional display of altruism challenges the conventional depiction of male marine mammal behavior.

After the successful rescue, the reunited pair moved to higher ground on the beach, where the female vocalized her gratitude. The male, having demonstrated his selfless commitment to the well-being of the young pup, responded with a trumpet call before resting on the wet sand.

This observation sheds light on the complex and compassionate nature of marine mammals, challenging preconceived notions about their behavior. The scientists hope that this exceptional case of altruism will inspire further research into the social dynamics and behaviors of these incredible creatures.

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