Locomotion in diving elephant seals: physical and physiological constraints. Academic Article uri icon


  • To better understand how elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) use negative buoyancy to reduce energy metabolism and prolong dive duration, we modelled the energetic cost of transit and deep foraging dives in an elephant seal. A numerical integration technique was used to model the effects of swim speed, descent and ascent angles, and modes of locomotion (i.e. stroking and gliding) on diving metabolic rate, aerobic dive limit, vertical displacement (maximum dive depth) and horizontal displacement (maximum horizontal distance along a straight line between the beginning and end locations of the dive) for aerobic transit and foraging dives. Realistic values of the various parameters were taken from previous experimental data. Our results indicate that there is little energetic advantage to transit dives with gliding descent compared with horizontal swimming beneath the surface. Other factors such as feeding and predator avoidance may favour diving to depth during migration. Gliding descent showed variable energy savings for foraging dives. Deep mid-water foraging dives showed the greatest energy savings (approx. 18%) as a result of gliding during descent. In contrast, flat-bottom foraging dives with horizontal swimming at a depth of 400m showed less of an energetic advantage with gliding descent, primarily because more of the dive involved stroking. Additional data are needed before the advantages of gliding descent can be fully understood for male and female elephant seals of different age and body composition. This type of data will require animal-borne instruments that can record the behaviour, three-dimensional movements and locomotory performance of free-ranging animals at depth.

published proceedings

  • Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci

author list (cited authors)

  • Davis, R. W., & Weihs, D.

citation count

  • 28

complete list of authors

  • Davis, Randall W||Weihs, Daniel

publication date

  • November 2007