Like elephants or dinosaurs, male Northern elephant seals on land are massive past the point of useful reference. A 5000-lb animal falls off our everyday mental scale; it’s just enormous.
Yet, lounging around on the sand at this time of year—their mating season—these beasts look like they need some band-aids and Neosporin. Their thick, strong hide is marred with new gashes laid over old scars. Titans they may be, but even titans can fall when they square off against other titans.
They fight with deadly weapons for great rewards. A male who is able to defend a good stretch of beach—populated by many females nursing their pups—can sire dozens of pups. A male who does not rule an area can expect to father no pups at all.
When they aren’t doing battle, the males are expert loungers. They save their energy for fighting; they do not eat while on the beach for the breeding season, so energy is a very limited resource.
Juvenile males appear to have it easy: they don’t have to fight anyone, just lounge around listening to their elders roar. Their hides are unscarred. But to be big and strong enough to compete is the goal. They must itch to join the fight.
The end goal of all of this is pups. The pups are born dark, and grow fat nursing from their mothers. Like the males, the females also fast while on the beach. While the males drain away their energy reserves in battle, the females give theirs to their hungry pups.
Eventually the pups replace their dark coat with a velvety silver one, as pristine as their fathers’ hides are scarred.
The pups form a lumpy carpet across the beach, which the males, fixated on their fighting, do not hesitate to crawl over. The babies squeal their objections, but are usually unharmed.
The pups also squeal at other times.
Perhaps they are practicing.
One pair of pups certainly seemed to be mock-fighting, in anticipation of the more dangerous fights they may face in a few years.
The pups who survive and grow big enough to fight over females will be the lucky ones. They first have to learn to feed themselves and face an ocean full of sharks, to whom the little seal pups are so much snack food.
Not all scars are seal-inflicted. In addition to his battle scars, this male bore an uglier scar on his flank, possibly from a shark.
But for the pups, facing sharks will be later. For now, the pups can doze, and scratch, and dream of being bigger.