Daniel Costa for NPR
A surfacing elephant seal with a tag that monitors the animal's position in the ocean and its depth over time.
A surfacing elephant seal with a tag that monitors the animal's position in the ocean and its depth over time. Daniel Costa for NPR
Nicole Teutschel/UC Santa Cruz
Penelope the elephant seal and her pup on the beach. The visible tag tracks the animal's position, and a small tag on her back records depth over time.
Penelope the elephant seal and her pup on the beach. The visible tag tracks the animal's position, and a small tag on her back records depth over time. Nicole Teutschel/UC Santa Cruz
Nicole Teutschel/UC Santa Cruz
Stelephant Colbert claiming a patch of beach at Año Nuevo State Reserve.
Stelephant Colbert claiming a patch of beach at Año Nuevo State Reserve. Nicole Teutschel/UC Santa Cruz
Luis Huckstadt/UC Santa Cruz
One of the beaches on Año Nuevo Island during the breeding season. Most of the animals pictured are elephant seals.
One of the beaches on Año Nuevo Island during the breeding season. Most of the animals pictured are elephant seals. Luis Huckstadt/UC Santa Cruz
Elephant seals return to the beaches of Año Nuevo State Reserve in Northern California every year to mate, molt and give birth. And recently, researchers have introduced these blubbery giants to the Internet.
For the past 25 years, biologists at the University of California, Santa Cruz have been tagging elephant seals to study how they use the ocean. It's part of a program called Tagging of Pacific Predators, or TOPP.
"It's interesting to us to know where they're going, when they're going there and where we think they're probably finding prey," says Nicole Teutschel, a graduate student with the group.
But Teutschel's interest in elephant seals isn't just confined to academic research.
"I'm working on an outreach project geared toward educating the public about northern elephant seals and marine conservation," she says. "It all started out with thinking, 'What would happen if we gave one seal a Facebook page?' "
So last year Teutschel and her colleagues chose one of the elephant seals they were studying, called GN981, and gave her a more palatable name: Penelope Seal. They then gave Penelope Seal a Facebook profile.
"Believe it or not, hundreds of people wanted to be Penelope's friend," Teutschel says.
In other words, people were inviting Penelope into their social network of otherwise human Facebook friends.
"And they wanted to talk to her about where she was going and why she was going there, and how deep she was diving, and if she was going to have a pup and was it a male or a female," Teutschel says. "There were just all these questions that people had. People became almost invested in learning more about what that animal was doing. So we started using Penelope as a vehicle to communicate science to the public."
Building Awareness Online
Because of the program's success, this year a total of 15 seals were given Facebook profiles, and Teutschel has been coordinating the effort.
"I basically let her run with it," says Dan Costa, Teutschel's graduate adviser and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz. He noticed that Teutschel has upped the ante this year. "Before I knew it, we had this whole team of undergraduates in my lab blogging and taking pictures and putting out stories about our elephant seal research and what's going on at Año Nuevo, and I just kind of sat back and watched it all happen. It's been quite amazing."
The Facebook profiles target a lot of different groups, from school kids to Spanish speakers. Even Stephen Colbert, the host of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central, has gotten involved, declaring on his show: "The University of Santa Cruz Marine Lab has named an elephant seal after me. Yes, Stelephant Colbert the elephant seal."
Stelephant's television appearance gave him something of a Colbert bump. This seal went from 200 Facebook friends to well over 1,000.
Creating a profile for an elephant seal on Facebook can pose some challenges, like posting mating behavior.
"Stelephant's relationship status, like most of us in college, is 'It's complicated,' " Teutschel explains. "Facebook doesn't have, like, a harem option or alpha/beta/gamma male option, so I think that definitely falls under the complicated category."
Costa is encouraged by all the positive attention, but he hopes these efforts are communicating enough of the science to encourage marine conservation.
"For me what's in this is [that] I think these are particularly amazing animals, and I'd like to see them continue to exist," he says. "And ultimately, that's what we have to do is get people to appreciate these animals. The more we appreciate them, the more we're willing to protect them."
And regardless of the Internet connection, the elephant seals can always fall back on their more traditional ways of messaging each other.