Bearded Seal

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Bearded seals (Erignathus barbatus), also known as square-flipper and udjuk (Inuit), are the largest of the northern phocid (true seals, family Phocidae) seals. Adults measure 2-2.5 m long and are gray-brown in color. Some individuals have irregular light-colored patches. The weight of bearded seals varies dramatically on an annual cycle, but the average weight is 250-300 kg. Females, which are somewhat larger than males in this species, can weigh in excess of 425 kg in the spring. The sexes are not easily distinguished. Pups are approximately 1.3 m long at birth and weigh an average of 33 kg when they are born. At birth they have a partial coat of fuzzy gray-blue "lanugo," but have already commenced molting into a smooth dark-gray coat, with a light belly, that is their pelt by the time they are a few weeks old. Their shed lanugo is passed in the form of small, tight disks, along with the placenta. The pups' faces have white cheek patches and white eyebrow spots that give them a "bandit" or "teddy-bear" appearance. Yearlings look very similar to pups, but the facial patterns are somewhat less distinct and they often have dark spots on their bellies. Bearded seals have several distinctive physical features: their bodies have a very rectangular shape; their heads appear to be small compared to the size of their bodies; they have square-shaped front flippers with very strong claws; and they have an extremely elaborate, long set of whiskers that tend to curl when dry. It is these whiskers (or vibrissae) that give the species its common name.

Bearded seals have a patchy distribution throughout the circumpolar Arctic. Their preferred habitat is drifting pack ice in areas over shallow water shelves. Juvenile animals wander quite broadly, occurring along the coast of Europe quite regularly, and in the winter of 2002/2003 a young male bearded seal took up residency in a river near Tokyo. In most parts of their range, adult animals remain in coastal waters much of the year, moving northward in the summer and fall to remain relatively close to the drifting pack ice. Bearded seal movement patterns are highly dependent on local and annual ice conditions.

Bearded seals give birth in the spring, with peak birthing occurring in many parts of their range in early May. Females give birth to their single pup on small, drifting ice-floes in shallow areas. The pups enter the water very quickly, only hours after birth, which is likely a response to heavy predation by polar bears. The pups become proficient divers during the 18-24 days they are cared for by their mothers. During this time they consume about 8 l of milk per day and grow rapidly at an average rate of 3.3 kg per day. Pups usually weigh about 100 kg when they are weaned. Mating takes place toward the end of the lactation period. During the breeding period, male bearded seals

Bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus).

Photo by Mike Spindler, courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service

Bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus).

Photo by Mike Spindler, courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service

"sing" to attract females. They defend small patches of ocean where they perform their vocal displays over a period of some weeks. Territorial males occupy these same areas from one year to the next. It is not possible to provide accurate abundance estimates for bearded seals because they are very difficult to survey. However, this species probably numbers in the hundreds of thousands globally.

Bearded seals eat a wide variety of different types of prey, but are predominantly benthic feeders, eating clams, shrimps, crabs, squid, fishes, and a variety of other small prey that they find on, in, or near the ocean floor. They can search soft bottom sediments using their whiskers to find hidden prey that they get at using suction or water-jetting. Bearded seals are not deep divers; they feed in shallow coastal areas and hence are normally not required to dive to depths of more than 200-300 m. Pups dive to considerable depths during their first year of life (up to 450 m), but older, experienced animals remain in shallow water where most of their benthic prey resides. Polar bears and walruses are the top two predators of bearded seals, but killer whales and Greenland sharks may also take bearded seals, particularly pups.

Bearded seals are found in association with drifting pack ice, but they do come ashore to rest on occasion. Bearded seals are a very calm species that can be approached by humans to within a few meters quite easily in areas where they are not routinely hunted. However, even in these areas this species is always found at the ice edge when hauled out, ready to escape into the water if the need arises. Bearded seals shed their hair diffusely most of the year, but they do have a concentrated period of molting in June, when they prefer not to go into the water. During this period, they prefer to remain hauled out on the ice. At this time of year, there is not a lot of ice available in coastal areas, so bearded seals occur in small groups on the remaining early summer ice. Beyond the loose social aggregations that occur during breeding and molting, bearded seals are largely solitary animals. Female bearded seals reach sexual maturity when they are about five years old, whereas males are a bit older, usually six or seven years, when they reach maturity. Bearded seals live to an age of 20-25 years.

The only country to have ever had commercial harvesting of this species is Russia, where in the Sea of Okhotsk and Bering Seas annual catches exceeded 10,000 animals in some years during the 1950s and 1960s. Quotas were established to reduce hunting, and catches dropped to a few thousand bearded seals annually in the 1970s and 1980s in these regions. However, bearded seals are an important subsistence resource for coastal peoples throughout much of the Arctic. Their meat is a favorite food in some northern communities, and their thick leather has in the past been used for covering kayaks and making rope.

Kit Kovacs

See also Marine Mammal Hunting Further Reading

Burns, J.J., The Pacific Bearded Seal, Anchorage: Alaska Department of Fish and Game Bulletin, 1967

-, "Bearded seal." In Handbook of Marine Mammals,

Volume 2, New York: Academic Press, 1981, pp. 145-170 Burns, J.J. & K.J. Frost,The Natural History and Ecology of the Bearded Seal (Erignathus barbatus), Outercontinental Shelf Environmental Assessment Program Final Report (OCSEAP), 1979 Chapskii, K.K., The Bearded Seals of the Kara and Barents Seas, Fisheries and Marine Translation Series of the United States, Washington, No. 3162, 1974, 145pp (original published in 1938 in Russian) Gjertz, I., K.M. Kovacs, C. Lydersen & 0. Wiig, "Movements and diving of bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus) mothers and pups during lactation and post-weaning." Polar Biology, 23(8) (2000): 559-566 Hjelset, A.M., M. Andersen, I. Gjertz, C. Lydersen & B. Gulliksen, "Feeding habits of bearded seals (Erignathus barbatus) from the Svalbard area, Norway." Polar Biology, 21(3) (1999): 186-193 Kovacs, K.M., C. Lydersen & I. Gjertz, "Birth-site characteristics and prenatal molting in bearded seals (Erignathus barbatus)." Journal of Mammalogy, 77(4) (1996): 1085-1091 Lydersen, C., M.O. Hammill & K.M. Kovacs, "Diving activity in nursing bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus) pups." Canadian Journal of Zoology, 72(1) (1994): 96-103 Lydersen, C., K.M. Kovacs, M.O. Hammill & I. Gjertz, "Energy intake and utilization by nursing bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus) pups from Svalbard, Norway." Journal of Comparative Physiology B—Biochemical Systemic and Environmental Physiology, 166(7) (1996): 405-411 Van Parijs, S.M., C. Lydersen & K.M. Kovacs, "Vocalisations and movements suggest alternative mating tactics in male bearded seals." Animal Behaviour, 65 (2003):, 273-283

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