“Altruistic” Bull Elephant Seal Turns Lifeguard To Save Drowning Pup

In an incredibly rare act of potential altruism, a male northern elephant seal has been observed saving a young pup from drowning. The unprecedented encounter, which has made a hero out of the pinniped lifeguard, could be the first recorded example of male altruism in the species.

Northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) are the largest of the “true” seals in the Northern Hemisphere, although they’re not the largest seal in the world – that crown belongs to the mammoth southern elephant seal, which can reach just shy of 6 meters (20 feet).

Males have large, distinctive noses, which they can inflate and use to resonate sound while threatening each other. They are notoriously aggressive, having been known to crush other animals, including pups, during mating season, and generally don’t engage with their young. They also avoid expending unnecessary energy during the breeding season – all of which makes this one seal’s act of goodwill highly surprising.

While taking pictures of elephant seals along Point Reyes National Seashore, California, in January 2022, the researchers were taken aback to witness a bull charge into the ocean toward a drowning pup that had been separated from its mother by the rising tide. They estimate the pup was less than two weeks old and note that it “was unable to swim as it struggled to keep its head above water, calling”.

The mother called back to her pup but made no attempt to pursue it as it was drawn further out to sea. Enter our heroic bull. Identified as the alpha of the harem, he approached the mother, before he “instantly turned and charged across wet sand and into the surf, swimming swiftly out to the struggling pup”.

At this point, the poor pup’s head was barely above the surface. Thankfully, the bull gently nudged it toward the shore in the nick of time, using his body to protect the pup from being dragged out by the tide.

After successfully reuniting mother and pup, the bull bellowed in triumph and rested on the wet sand. The rescue mission, snapshots of which can be seen below, lasted for approximately 20 minutes.

A storyboard of the events: (a) the mother calls toward her pup; (b) the bull charges toward the pup; (c) the bull pushes the pup to shore; (d) the bull blocks the pup from being drawn back out to sea; (e) the mother bellows after being reunited; (f) the bull trumpets in return.
Image credit: Allen et al., Marine Mammal Science, 2024 (CC BY 4.0)

The bull’s intrepid efforts, the team believe, could qualify as altruism.

“We believe that our novel observation meets the definition of an altruistic act,” they write. “The pup benefited from the male retrieving it from being swept out to sea and drowning because it was too young to swim, and the male expended energy at a critical time that had the potential to impact his fitness.”

Male altruism has never before been documented in an elephant seal, and has rarely been described in marine mammals full stop.

We may never know what sparked this seemingly selfless act – it could well be a one-off – but the researchers suggest that the male and female may have had a kinship, perhaps having both been present on the same beach in previous years. However, without genetic analysis, this cannot be confirmed.

Whatever his motives, our bull in shining armor is in good company – possible examples of altruism have been documented throughout the animal kingdom, from parrots and chimps to humpback whales.

The study is published in Marine Mammal Science.

Leave a Comment