By Donald M. Davis
City on a Hill Press Reporter
What do you get when you combine an elephant, a seal and the anchor of an Emmy Award-winning American satirical television program?
Meet Stelephant Colbert, the almost 6,000-pound northern elephant seal whose namesake is Stephen Colbert of the widely popular “Colbert Report.”
Originally, Stelephant was named by UC Santa Cruz Long Marine Lab (LML) biologists in an attempt to build more interest in the educational possibilities that elephant seals can bring to science.
Those who work with the animals every day contend that Stelephant and his fellow seals — such as Jon Sealwart, named after Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” — are some of the most unique creatures in the world. Declared extinct three different times in their history, male elephant seals can reach lengths up to 16 feet, while the females can reach 10 feet. In addition to fostering awkward sexual positioning, the massive size of adult elephant seals has resulted in only about 50 percent of babies being able to survive after the first year, often because unaware parents can easily crush younger seals.
In an effort to spread awareness about the uniqueness of the species, those at LML decided not only to give the seals unique names but also to share details about their personalities online.
“We initially were wondering what would happen if we gave one of the seals we were tagging a name and a Facebook page,” said Nicole Teutschel, a UCSC graduate student working with the elephant seals both at LML and Año Nuevo State Natural Reserve, located about 20 minutes north of campus, off of Highway 1 in San Mateo County. “We tried it first with a seal named Penelope and it was a big hit.”
The tagging of Penelope was part of the Tagging of Pacific Predators (TOPP) program, which places small, painless tags on the heads and backs of the animals at a cost of $10,000 per tag.
TOPP is one of many programs started by Census of Marine Life, a global organization whose goal is to facilitate a better understanding of animal diversity in the ocean. The tags, collected after the seals come back to the State Reserve after their yearlong trip, provide data for UCSC head marine biologist Dan Costa and his researchers. This data is then used to learn more about where the elephant seals travel during their long annual swimming trips and to uncover information about the oceanic environment in which the seals live.
The creation of Stelephant’s Facebook page — the first ever created for an elephant seal — was meant to get the public interested in the research about the animals and the problems the seals face, Costa said.
Experts guess that in 1892, only 50 to 100 elephant seals remained in the wild due to aggressive hunting of the animals for their oil. In the early 1900s, though, legal protections that started in Mexico helped to exponentially increase that number to about 160,000 elephant seals worldwide, according to information from LML and Año Nuevo.
And if numbers are any indication, Stelephant’s Facebook page is, in fact, helping spread the word about the seals: As of April 1, Stelephant Colbert had 2,148 Facebook friends, 76 photos, four photo albums and two videos.
“It seemed like a really good model to pull people in,” Teutschel said about the Marine Lab’s attempts to encourage publicity for the animal. “We wanted students to ask, ‘What can I do? How can I help?’”
<b>Stephen on Stelephant</b>
Student discussion about these most recently tagged, uniquely-named elephant seals has helped increase awareness about and appreciation of the species as a whole, and brought national attention to the creatures and those who study them.
On the Feb. 5 episode of “The Colbert Report,” Stephen Colbert dedicated an entire segment to Stelephant. At first Colbert said he was honored to have what he thought to be a small, cute animal named after him.
“There may be justice in the world after all, because the University of Santa Cruz Marine Lab has named an elephant seal after me,” Colbert said on his show. “I can’t wait to see the little cutie.”
Colbert soon realized that this “cutie” was a 4-meter-long, large-nosed, extraordinarily loud elephant seal.
“This is worse than having Elephant Man named after you,” Colbert said on his show. “Why couldn’t they name something beautiful after me, like Stephen Colbeorge Clooney, the George Clooney?”
Colbert’s jokes and insults aside, the biologists at the Long Marine Lab said they are glad that a well-known figure has acknowledged their work.
“I thought it was really funny,” Teutschel said about Colbert’s take on Stelephant. “After it aired a lot of people went to the [TOPP] Web site.”
Following their airtime on “The Colbert Report,” the seals gained recognition via other news sources as well. About a month after their television time, National Public Radio (NPR) featured a piece on the elephant seals titled “For Seals on Facebook, ‘It’s Complicated,’” by Ari Daniel Shapiro, in which Shapiro discussed the seals’ Facebook pages.
This media coverage led many to befriend Stelephant on Facebook. In essence, this keeps them up-to-date on all the work TOPP is doing with the elephant seals.
“I grew up in Northern California and love elephant seals, and I went to Año Nuevo as a child with a school trip,” said Clare Shaw, a University of Notre Dame graduate. “I first heard about Stelephant on ‘The Colbert Report’ and then again on National Public Radio, and I thought it was a really creative way to spread awareness of and share information about the seals.”
Raheel Khan, a UC Davis faculty member, also became aware of Stelephant thanks to “The Colbert Report.”
“I had originally heard about Stelephant when Colbert mentioned him on his show a few months back, but never considered that he had a Facebook page,” Khan said. “After the NPR story I decided to befriend both Stelephant and Penelope Seal. I didn’t know there was a John Sealwart — I’ll probably make him my friend as well.”
<b>Stelephant Colbert vs. Jon Sealwart</b>
Though Jon Stewart, anchor of “The Daily Show,” helped create “The Colbert Report” and might therefore be considered Colbert’s boss in the television world, in the wild animal kingdom, it is Stelephant who triumphs over Sealwart at the State Natural Reserve.
Sealwart is considered a “loser” seal male, a term used to refer to a smaller male who may sneak around on the sidelines hoping to mate with the females while the alpha male is away. The alpha males are the biggest and strongest seals that guard harems of dozens of females on the beach.
Erin Pickett writes an online blog for TOPP entitled, “Jon Sealwart Everybody!! Today, Can Loser Males Have Hope Too??”
“The E-Seal team at Año [Nuevo] isn’t so sure about Jon’s future as an alpha, or a beta for that matter,” Pickett recently wrote. “Come to think of it, if the hierarchy of male elephant seals were classified to go lower, Jon would be lower than that. Jon seems to be perfecting the already Zen-like state of a seal during the breeding season. When they’re not nursing pups or spreading those hideous seal genes, they’re sleeping.”
In fact, only 10 percent of male elephant seals ever get a chance to mate in their lifetime making Jon Sealwart a possible virgin for life.
“Stelephant Colbert is no alpha male, but he’s no slouch in the romance department either,” Teutschel said. “I’ve seen him mate before, which is good for a male. Jon Sealwart is just asleep — he’s just a loser.”
In terms of aggressiveness, it seems that Stelephant is a “get in your face and challenge you” type of seal that has been known to charge at unlucky researchers, just as namesake Colbert will publicly embarrass any politician who challenges him. On the other hand, it appears that Sealwart is the opposite of his cable TV namesake in that he is known for being passive and slumbers for long periods of time, making it easy for researchers to tag him.
At the end of the day though, popularity might just come down to Facebook friends. Stelephant can claim 2,148 online friends while Jon Sealwart has only 529.
<b>The Big Picture</b>
UCSC researchers like Teutschel and Costa seek to not only bring awareness to elephant seals in local settings such as Santa Cruz, but also to increase worldwide interest in the data that the tagged elephant seals provide. One such example is the data on the conditions of the oceans in extremely hard-to-reach places.
“They travel to places we can’t,” Teutschel said.
Elephant seals, which spend up to 80 percent of their lives in the ocean, have been known to dive up to 1,550 meters. The females can hold their breath for about 20 minutes, while the males can hold their breath for nearly an hour, according to Año Nuevo research. The most delicate environments in the world are marine environments where a change of a few degrees can have catastrophic effects, not only on the creatures that live in the water but those that live on land as well.
“These [elephant seals] provide information on the state of the ocean and provide data where there is no other way of getting that information,” Costa said. “There are [also] many interesting medical-related aspects to our work.”
By tagging elephant seals, great white sharks, squid, albatross and other marine animals, the TOPP organization, in association with LML, aims to help animals and humans alike. Already, their research has brought about more efficient ways of protecting endangered species, such as the leatherback turtle.
While it is hard to argue that elephant seals are fat, blubbery and loud — and, in Colbert’s eyes, ugly — researchers say that every person that befriends Stelephant, Penelope, Sealwart or any of the 12 other elephant seal Facebook personalities increases awareness of the important research being conducted thanks to these animals.
As Orian Johnson, a four-year tour guide at the Año Nuevo put it, “Fat is beautiful.”