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Elephant seals, once nearly extinct, are finding new places to call home

Lisa M. Krieger, The Mercury News on

Published in Lifestyles

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Wildlife is vanishing around the world, plummeting at rates unprecedented in human history.

Then there are elephant seals.

Once on the brink of extinction, elephant seals are expanding north into new breeding grounds along the California coast, turning long-empty beaches into a ruckus of roars, grunts, chirps and moans.

“It’s a conservation success story,” said zoology Professor Dawn Goley of Cal Poly Humboldt. “They were in dire trouble.”

Last Thursday, Goley’s team hiked 10 miles and crossed a raging river to count and tag pups at the state’s newest and northernmost colony on Humboldt County’s Lost Coast, near Punta Gorda. They tallied 265 pups, up from only nine seven years ago.

Scientists attach tiny colored tags on flippers to identify a seal’s birthplace: yellow for Santa Barbara’s Channel Islands, white for San Luis Obispo’s San Simeon, green for San Mateo’s Año Nuevo State Park, pink for Marin’s Point Reyes National Seashore — and green for members of Humboldt’s young colony, in the King Range Conservation Area.

 

The tags make it possible to trace the origins of a group as they pick a breeding ground. For instance, it’s known that newborns on the Humboldt beach descend from animals who ventured north from Point Reyes, but also Año Nuevo and San Simeon.

“As they expand at sites, they fill up the space,” said marine ecologist Sarah Allen, former science adviser at Point Reyes. “Then females and juveniles start looking for some other place to get established.”

While this year’s storms have claimed some young lives, an estimated 200,000 animals are breeding and giving birth this season in the five National Marine Sanctuaries along the Pacific coast, covering nearly 15,000 square miles.

They’re all related, descendants of a tiny colony in Mexico — which once numbered fewer than 100 animals — that escaped the violence of 19th century hunters.

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