Blue Zoo: Bearded Seal

Featuring one amazing marine animal per week.

Bearded seals (Erignathus barbatus) – you can see how they got their name! – are the largest species of true seal in the Arctic (the family Phocidae) and can grow to 8 feet (2.6m) long. They have a circumpolar distribution down to approximately 80 degrees latitude, and depend on ice, which is where they give birth and molt. They also spend a lot of time in the water, where they hunt and mate. 

Bearded seal pups are able to swim almost immediately after they are born. They nurse for about 24 days before being weaned. Just around the time they are weaned, they molt and grow an adult coat. During this time, the mother mates again. During mating season, males (who mature by the time they are about six years old) give a loud and musical underwater call, which might be a way to attract females or intimidate competing males.

Female bearded seals are mature by about five years of age and, like polar bears, have delayed implantation. This means that after mating the fertilized embryo doesn’t grow for a period, ensuring the pup is born at the correct time in the following year.

Bearded seals forage on the seafloor for small fish and invertebrates and scrape breathing holes in the ice. They are fairly solitary and one can often be found lying around on ice floes. They lie on the downwind side of the ice floe with their heads near the edge, or near the breathing hole. This way they can smell anything coming from behind, see anything in front, and have an easy escape into the water.

Along with ringed seals, which are more common, bearded seals are an important source of food for polar bears,
which hunt them on the ice. They have also long been hunted by humans for their fur, oil, and meat. There are no reliable estimates of the bearded seal population right now and there is also little information on how hunting has affected them. However, there are concerns about the potential future impacts of climate change and oil spills on bearded seal populations.

To learn more and to get bearded seal wallpaper, coloring pages, activity sheets click here


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