The inert markers chromium-EDTA (liquid phase marker) and ytterbium nitrate (solid phase marker) were added to the food of three southern elephant seals in Taronga Zoo, Sydney, in a series of nine trials. The enclosures were checked at 15 to 30 minute intervals for up to 60 hours after dosing, and all faeces voided on land were collected (91 samples). Marker concentrations in faecal dry matter were determined and mean retention times calculated from the concentration-time curves.

The faeces were soft to semiliquid, with mean water content of 58% (range 24–80%). The marker concentration curves indicated a rapid rate of food transit through the gastro-intestinal tract in elephant seals compared with other carnivores. The mean time between dosing and first recovery of marker (Initial Recovery Time) was nine hours. This was significantly longer than the figure of 4.8 hours for northern elephant seals reported previously, and possible reasons for the differences are discussed. Mean Retention Time, a better index of rate of passage of ingesta, was 13 hours for the three southern elephant seals. This compares with times of 22 hours for the dog, 15 hours for the raccoon, and 13 hours for the cat, all carnivores with much shorter gastrointestinal tracts, both absolutely and relative to body size, than the southern elephant seal.

It is suggested that the very long small intestine may be an adaptation to foraging at depth, combined with long periods of submergence and the need to ingest large amounts of food when the animal is at sea continuously for weeks or months.