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Male elephant seals have rhythmic names that they keep throughout their lives and it looks like they also have naming trends.

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I’m willing to bet that every person  watching this video has a name, a particular way to refer to yourself  and for others to refer to you, be it one that you were  given or one that you chose.

There’s something universally  human about having a name. They’re often one of the first  things exchanged when people meet   and they can contain a lot of  information about a person.

And we’re not the only animals that have them. Male elephant seals also have  names, individual rhythms that identify them to other males that  they keep throughout their lives. And, not only do they have names like we do,  it looks like they also have naming trends. [ ♪ BB intro] There are two species of elephant seal: one in  the Northern Hemisphere and one in the Southern.

The northern elephant seal  can be found in the Pacific Ocean from the Gulf of Alaska to Baja California, while the southern elephant seal ranges from  40 degrees latitude south to Antarctica. And they are BIG. Photos of them just chilling  on a beach do not do their size justice.

The southern elephant seal is the largest  living member of the order Carnivora,   beating out lions, tigers, and polar bears. For context, one record-setting polar bear   from Alaska stood about 3.6  meters tall on its hind legs and weighed just over 1000 kilograms. Full-grown males of the southern  elephant seal can measure up to 6 meters long   and weigh up to 3700 kilograms.

And while the inflated, elongated nose, called a proboscis,  of male elephant seals might make them look kinda goofy, they are not to be messed with. During elephant seal breeding season,   late September to early November in the  south and December to March in the north, these huge males congregate on  beaches to battle it out for mates. Their duels include everything from  vocalizations, basically seal shouting matches, to actual physical fights that can  leave the combatants bloody and scarred.

And the outcomes of these battles establish the  social hierarchy on the beach for the season. The biggest winners maintain so-called  harems of female seals with whom they mate, the mid-ranking males  occasionally get access to mates,   and the lowest ranking males are out of luck. For most males, not fighting is  preferable to actually duking it out,   at least you live to see another season.

If you aren’t likely to win,  fighting is just a waste of energy   with potentially fatal consequences, so  you need a good way to weigh your odds. And this is where names come in. As they fight, the males honk at each other,   essentially announcing their identity in a series  of calls, like beating out a rhythm on a drum.

The pitch and tempo of the  honks are unique to each male,

making elephant seals the only mammal that’s been experimentally shown to use rhythm to communicate in the wild. And the males learn and remember  the names of their rivals,   and whether they won or lost  the last time they faced them. Recognizing who’s honking allows the males to  figure out what to do in a given situation.

If you’re the top seal on the beach, you fight  every challenger, you have the most to lose. If you’re a mid-ranking male, you back  off when the dominant males start honking, but you’ll attack a lower-ranking male,  you’re pretty sure the odds are in your favor. But, okay, how many different  ways can honks and beats be arranged   to make a unique name  for every male elephant seal?   Like, our language abilities as human  beings are incredible and complex, and yet I am not even the only  Sarah that works at this company.

Well, it turns out that the patterns of  honks that elephant seals use for names   have changed over time and from place to place, almost like the trends we see in human names. And the researchers think that,  in northern elephant seals, it may be because they were hunted  almost to extinction in the late 1800s. As few as 20 individuals are  thought to have survived,   all congregating to breed in one  colony off the coast of Baja, Mexico, becoming the ancestors of the more  than 200,000 seals alive today.

After they were granted protected status  in 1922 and given a chance to bounce back, researchers in 1969 noticed that  males that left the original colony   to establish new breeding sites tended to use faster tempos  to communicate their names. But by the mid 2010s, the differences in  tempo between breeding colonies had been lost. This might be due to breeding  sites becoming less isolated, as the seal population had grown and  males had moved between colonies,   taking their beats with them.

But! New variation had taken their place. Males now have more individual  variation between their calls   and use more complex rhythms  than they did 50 years ago.

So, for example, back in the 1960s, you  might’ve had seals with simpler calls,   sort of like single-syllable names  in people, which sound like this: [rhythmic elephant seal call] Today, though, you might get beats more like this: [more complex rhythmic elephant seal call] along with the simpler beats. And the researchers propose  that it’s probably because there are just more males now for the  other northern males to keep track of   than there were when the population was tiny. As far as naming trends go for  male southern elephant seals, it looks like males that haven’t yet  reached breeding age take some time   to figure out what their “name” is going to be.

And some research even suggests that they try to   imitate the beats dropped by the  dominant male in their colony, their names are attempts at imitating his. Which doesn’t seem any weirder to me than  the way human naming trends get started. So, maybe elephant seals aren’t actually  all that bizarre, by our standards.

Unless you count the part where they fight  by shouting their own name at each other. You can sign up for the pin club from  now through the end of February 6th. Check out how great this guy’s schnoz is!

When you sign up, you’ll get the  elephant seal in the middle of the month   and the pins after that around  the time we upload each new episode. And as always profits from the pin club and  all of our merch go to support our community’s efforts to decrease  maternal mortality in Sierra Leone. [ ♪ BB Outro]