Elephant Seals: Surprising Masters of 'Space and Time'

Researchers are impressed by their navigational skills
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 28, 2022 1:04 PM CST
Elephant Seals: Surprising Masters of 'Space and Time'
Time to go?   (Getty/franksvalli)

It may not be the first impression you get from looking at an elephant seal, but the creatures have what scientists describe as an uncanny "perception of space and time." The discovery is detailed in a new study in Current Biology. Researchers were trying to get a handle on how and why pregnant elephants seals managed to return to their breeding beaches from thousands of miles away just in time to give birth—usually within five days of their return, reports New Scientist. As it turns out, the animals have what amounts to an impressive built-in GPS system, per a release at Phys Org. But it's more than geography: The seals not only know where they are and where they must go, but exactly when to leave.

“It seems like elephant seals evolved these incredible navigation skills to figure out where they are and how long they have to get back,” says lead researcher Roxanne Beltran of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her team tagged more than 100 seals and tracked their journeys between 2004 and 2015. The seals breed on beaches on the west coast of North America, but they subsequently spend about 240 days at sea while traveling roughly 6,000 miles foraging for food. At some point, they begin heading for home—and the expectant mothers always time it just right.

Initially, researchers expected to find that factors such as body weight—that is, how successful the seals were at foraging—affected the decision on when to leave. Not so. "We expected that highly successful (i.e. fatter) seals might end their foraging trips earlier, but that was not the case," says Beltran. "Instead, it seems like they are well programmed to turn around strategically based on where they are and in turn how long it will take them to get back." Other animals, particularly birds, are similarly skilled, and the researchers hope future studies will help determine what navigational cues are play—for instance, whether the animals adjust the speed of their travel to arrive on time. (More elephant seals stories.)

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