Sex at sea lets female elephant seals stay in control

FEMALE elephant seals scurry out to sea for a bit of rough and tumble with the boys. The finding casts doubt on the long-held belief that they are submissive players in a highly chauvinistic mating game.

Southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonine) have been cited as a model of extreme polygyny. Every year, females come ashore to breed with dominant males, called "beach masters", in harems that can number one dominant male to 270 females. But that may not be the whole story…

… Why elephant seals have sex at sea is unclear. The encounters may be random, or part of a mating strategy that gives females control over who they mate with, away from the single choice offered in a harem. Or they may just be more comfortable: males can be up to 10 times heavier than females.

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Comfortable, and in control (Image: Momatiuk-Eastcott/Corbis)

Comfortable, and in control (Image: Momatiuk-Eastcott/Corbis)

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