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Bearded Seal (Erignathus barbatus)

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Bearded seals are members of the “true seal” family, Phocidae. They have a small head, large body, and small, square foreflippers. They have a short snout with thick, long white whiskers, which gives this species their “bearded” name. Their coat is dark brown or gray with dark rings and spots.

They are the largest species of arctic seal. Bearded seals grow to lengths of about 7-8 ft (2.0-2.5 m) and weigh about 575-800 lbs (260-360 kg), with females being slightly larger than males. Their lifespan exceeds 25 years.

They are solitary animals and individual seals rest on single ice floes facing the water for an easy escape from predators. Bearded seals are extremely vocal and males’ songs can be heard for up to 12 miles.

Little is known about the mating and breeding rituals of bearded seals. Females reach sexual maturity around 5 years and males at 6-7 years. Females give birth to a single pup while hauled out on pack-ice. Pups are usually born between mid-March and May and are weaned at about 15 days old.

Bearded seals feed on “benthic” prey such as arctic cod, shrimp, clams, crabs, and octopus. While feeding, they dive to depths usually lessthan 325 ft (100 m).

This species is classified as LEAST CONCERN according to the IUCN's Red List.
This species is classified as LEAST CONCERN according to the IUCN’s Red List.

Status

ESA Threatened – 2 distinct population segments (DPSs)

  1. Beringia DPS
  2. Okhotsk DPS

MMPA Depleted

  1. Beringia DPS
  2. Okhotsk DPS

MMPA – All bearded seals are protected under the MMPA.

Species Description

Weight:
575-800 lbs (260-360 kg)
Length:
7-8 ft (2.0-2.5 m)
Appearance:
dark brown or gray coat with dark rings and spots, they have a small head, large body, and small, square foreflippers; they have a short snout with thick, long white whiskers, which gives this species their “beard”
Lifespan:
about 25 years
Diet:
arctic cod, shrimp, clams, crabs, and octopus
Behavior:
solitary animals, individual seals rest on ice floes; songs from male bearded seals can be heard for up to 12 miles

Habitat

Bearded seals reside in arctic waters and are commonly found with drifting sea ice. They inhabit waters less than 650 ft (200 m) deep.

Distribution

Bearded seals are found in the Northern Hemisphere with a circumpolar distribution that does not extend farther north than 80°N.

Population Trends

There is one stock of bearded seals in U.S. waters: the Alaska stock.  The most recent stock assessment reports with population estimates are available on our website.

Threats

  • Loss of sea ice is a potential threat to the habitat of bearded seals.
  • Bycatch in commercial fishing gear, such as commercial trawls, may occur, but mortality incidental to fishing is very low.
  • In Russia, these seals are hunted commercially.

Conservation Efforts

On March 28, 2008, NMFS initiated a status review for bearded, ringed, spotted, and ribbon seals to determine if listing these ice seal species under the ESA is warranted.

Regulatory Overview

This species is protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, as amended. Bearded seals are harvested annually for subsistence by Alaska Natives. In addition, the Okhotsk and Beringia distinct population segments (DPSs) of bearded seals are listed under theEndangered Species Act.

Taxonomy

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Phocidae
Genus: Erignathus
Species: barbatus

References:

Cool/Gross/Weird:

  • Bearded seals are commonly associated with drifting sea ice in the Arctic Ocean.
  • They are extremely vocal and males’ songs can be heard for 12 miles!
  • In 2007, a bearded seal was found stranded in Southeast Florida, well outside of its normal range!

-TSF-

 
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