Most of the year pregnant female elephant seals are journeying 10,000 kilometers for 240 days across the Eastern North Pacific Ocean. This trek is not only long and has to be perfectly timed so the mothers can give birth within five days of their arrival to the breeding beaches at Año Nuevo Reserve (California).
Exactly how these animals have impressively managed to navigate this journey has confused scientists until now. A team from the University of California Santa Cruz has recently cracked this mysterious case.
Using satellite tracking data of 100 female seals, the researchers found that these migrating creatures have a kind of internal GPS. “We found that migrating elephant seals know how far they are from their breeding beach thousands of kilometers away,” said Roxanne Beltran, first author of the paper. “They also know approximately how long it will take them to get back.”
Previously, it was suggested that the amount of body fat the female was carrying was used as an internal indication of when to start making their journey to the beaches. However, the new paper, published in Current Biology, confirms that they have a sense involving an internal perception of space and time. Elephant seals, as it turns out, can measure how far they’ve traveled over a certain amount of time.
It is currently unclear exactly what sensory mechanisms are at play in the elephant seals to keep track of their direction, but the team hopes to uncover more in future studies.
With a quickly changing climate, much of the natural world is becoming endangered. It is important for conservationists to have an arsenal of knowledge on their side. The more information we have on animal behavior, the better equipped we are to protect them.
Source study: Current Biology – Evidence of a map sense: elephant seals account for time and space during long-distance migrations