Where were the northern elephant seals? Holocene archaeology and biogeography of Mirounga angustirostris
Driven to the brink of extinction during the nineteenth century commercial fur and oil trade, northern elephant seal (NES, Mirounga angustirostris ) populations now exceed 100 000 animals in the northeast Pacific from Alaska to Baja California. Because little is known about the biogeography and ecology of NES prior to the mid-nineteenth century, we synthesize and analyze the occurrence of NES remains in North American archaeological sites. Comparing these archaeological data with modern biogeographical, genetic, and behavioral data, we provide a trans-Holocene perspective on NES distribution and abundance. Compared with other pinnipeds, NES bones are relatively rare throughout the Holocene, even in California where they currently breed in large numbers. Low numbers of NES north of California match contemporary NES distribution, but extremely low occurrences in California suggest their abundance in this area was very different during the Holocene than today. We propose four hypotheses to explain this discrepancy, concluding that ancient human settlement and other activities may have displaced NES from many of their preferred modern habitats during much of the Holocene.