Unlikely Lifeguard Saves an Elephant Seal Pup

Scientists witness an altruistic act among bull elephant seals.


Study, Wildlife
Elephant seal pup.

(worldswildlifewonders / Shutterstock.com)

A routine elephant seal surveying mission in January 2022 became something much more exciting for two scientists. Purely by chance they witnessed something they didn’t think was possible, a male elephant seal performing an act of altruism by saving a drowning pup.

Elephantseal bulls not known for altruism
Altruism, the act of assisting another being in need, is not unknown within the animal kingdom. As the authors of a study in Marine Mammal Science on the apparent act of altruism by a male elephant seal point out, it has been observed both among birds, and social mammals.

However, the NYT reports, this is not the case for male elephant seals. In fact, male elephant seals can be so intent on mating with females or fighting other males that they sometimes mow down anything in their paths as they rush towards the other seals, including their own pups. 

A heroic rescue
That is why the scene that unfolded in front of Sarah Allen, Matthew Lau, and Sarah Codde, wildlife biologists with the National Park Service, and the authors of the study, was so surprising. 

Walking near Point Reyes National Seashore in California, they noticed that a young elephant seal pup had gotten swept out into the ocean, according to PhysOrg. Unable to swim, the pup called out to its mother, who was standing at the shoreline, calling back. But the female seal did not enter the water. That is when a bull elephant seal, seemingly with purpose, dragged itself into the water and gently nudged the pup back to the shore. 

Allen, who has been researching elephant seals for over forty years, had never seen anything like this before. She told NYT: “I contacted a bunch of colleagues asking if they’d seen anything like this, and nobody had.”

Not only had the male saved a seal pup it was not related to, it also did so to his detriment, reported the NYT. Bull elephant seals fast during the mating season, and most of their energy is expended on mating and fighting. Rushing into the water was a huge expenditure of energy for an animal that did not have a lot of energy to spend. 

The authors of the study also caution that this may have been a one off event, and that it is impossible to fully know what the male elephant seal’s intentions were when he pushed the pup back to shore. 

Even so, the scene that unfolded in January of 2022 is a testament to the fact that there is still so much unknown about the animal kingdom and the social lives of the living creatures humanity shares the earth with. We can still be surprised.

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