For Seals On Facebook, 'It's Complicated' Elephant seals return to northern California beaches every year to mate, molt and give birth. Recently, researchers have introduced these blubbery giants to the Internet.

For Seals On Facebook, 'It's Complicated'

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Elephant seals return to the beaches of Ano 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.

Reporter Ari Daniel Shapiro has the story.

(Soundbite of seals)

ARI SHAPIRO: For the last 25 years, biologists of UC 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. Nicole Teutschel is a graduate student with the group.

Ms. NICOLE TEUTSCHEL (Grad Student, UC Santa Cruz; Tagging of Pacific Predators): I'm working on an outreach project geared toward educating the public about northern elephant seals and marine conservation. It all started out with thinking, what would happen if we gave one seal a Facebook page?

SHAPIRO: That's the wildly popular Web site where people create social networks of their friends and contacts. So last year, Teutschel and her colleagues chose one of the elephant seals they were studying called…

Ms. TEUTSCHEL: GN981.

SHAPIRO: …gave her a more palatable name.

Ms. TEUTSCHEL: Penelope Seal.

SHAPIRO: And then gave Penelope Seal a Facebook profile.

Ms. TEUTSCHEL: You know, believe it or not, hundreds of people wanted to be Penelope's friend.

SHAPIRO: In other words, people were inviting Penelope into their social network of otherwise human Facebook friends.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TEUTSCHEL: 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 female? There were just all these questions that people had. People became almost invested in learning more about what that animal is doing, so we started using Penelope as a vehicle to communicate science to the public.

SHAPIRO: Due to the program's success, this year, a total of 15 seals got Facebook profiles, and Nicole Teutschel has been coordinating the effort.

Professor DAN COSTA (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, UC Santa Cruz): I basically let her run with it.

SHAPIRO: Dan Costa is Teutschel's graduate adviser, and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz. He's noticed Teutschel has upped the ante this year.

Prof. COSTA: 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 in Ano Nuevo. And I just kind of sat back and watched it all happen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. COSTA: It's been quite amazing.

SHAPIRO: 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.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Colbert Report")

Mr. STEPHEN COLBERT (Host, "The Colbert Report"): The University of Santa Cruz Marine Lab has named an elephant seal after me.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. COLBERT: Yes. Stelephant Colbert, the elephant seal.

SHAPIRO: Creating a profile for an elephant seal on Facebook can pose some challenges - for instance, their mating behavior.

Ms. TEUTSCHEL: Stelephant's relationship status, like most of us in college, is it's complicated.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TEUTSCHEL: You know? Facebook doesn't have, like, a harem option or alpha, beta, gamma male option. So I think that definitely falls under the complicated category.

SHAPIRO: Stelephant's television appearance gave him something of a Colbert bump. This seal went from 200 Facebook friends to well over 1,000. Dan Costa is encouraged by all this positive attention, but he hopes these efforts are communicating enough of the science to encourage marine conservation.

Prof. COSTA: For me, what's in this is - I think these are particularly amazing animals, and I'd like to see them continue to exist. 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.

SHAPIRO: And regardless of the Internet connection, the elephant seals can always fall back on their more traditional ways of messaging each other.

(Soundbite of seals)

SHAPIRO: For NPR News, I'm Ari Daniel Shapiro.

BLOCK: For videos and more information about Stelephant, Penelope and the other seals, check at our Web site: npr.org.

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