Elephant Seals Could Reveal Insights on Planet's Health

While these animals have been on Earth for millions of years, scientists have only been studying them for 40 years or so. Humans only just discovered that these seemingly ungainly lumps swim as far out as the International Date Line, and dive as deep as a mile below the surface.

"It's a really wonderful animal because there are so many aspects, from human physiology and medicine to basic understanding of how an animal dives and handles pressure, to the ecology of the animal, and the environment and the oceanography," Costa said.

Elephant seals stop breathing when they sleep, and that knowledge has helped our study of human sleep apnea. The animals can also explore remote ocean depths, taking those electronic sensors to places humans have never been.

"They obviously have a very rudimentary existence," Wengert said. "Their evolutionary cycle has been such that even as the world has evolved, they are continuing on."

That might be their biggest asset. Elephant seals have been doing this for millennia. They haven't changed. They could be our canaries in the mine shaft, our 5,000-pound beasts in the deep sea, giving us an insight we need into the health of our planet.

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