Earless Seals

Earless seals make up the family Phocidae.

The Common, or Harbor, Seal

is found in oceans—and sometimes large rivers—of the Northern Hemisphere. Some populations inhabit freshwater lakes. Both sexes are dark gray above and lighter below. The entire body is marked with brown or gray spots. Males grow up to 6 feet (1.8 m) in length and weigh up to 550 pounds (250 kg). Females are about 12 inches (30 cm) shorter and less than half the weight.

The common seal is Phoca vitulina.

Which Pinniped Is a Homebody?

Many kinds of pinnipeds migrate long distances to find food or breeding grounds. But one seal that usually stays close to home is the harbor seal.

Harbor seals live mainly along shorelines. They can be seen along both the east and west coasts of the United States. Their favorite places are harbors.

Harbor seals usually haul out on rocks, piers, and sandbanks. Females often give birth where tides go in and out, away from boats and other dangers. Their pups can swim when they are just a few minutes old. But harbor seal pups rarely swim alone. Their mothers go with them. If the adult senses danger, she may take her pup in her mouth and dive underwater with it.

A pup might even get a ride on its mother's back while she hunts for food.

The Elephant Seals, or Sea Elephants

There are two species—the southern elephant seal, which is the largest of all seals, and the northern elephant seal. The name is derived from the male's trunklike proboscis, an overdeveloped nose. The southern species is found around Antarctica. The male may be up to 20 feet (6 m) long and weigh 8,000 pounds (3,600 kg). Females are smaller. Bulls are bluish-gray above and pale gray beneath. Females are brownish-gray with lighter necks and underparts. The northern elephant seal resembles the southern, except that it is smaller and has a larger proboscis. In an adult male northern elephant seal, the proboscis may extend downward for 12 inches (30 cm) or more.

By 1900, elephant seals were almost exterminated for their blubber. They have been protected by international agreements since the 1930's, and their population is increasing.

The southern elephant seal is Mirounga leonina; the northern elephant seal, M. angustirostris.

The elephant sealThe elephant seal is the largest of all seals.
Which Pinniped Is the Nose-iest?

An elephant seal’s nose looks like an elephant’s trunk, but it is shorter. Only male elephant seals have trunks for noses, which they use to attract female elephant seals.

Elephant seals are the biggest pinnipeds. Whales are the only sea mammals that are larger. Southern elephant seals may weigh up to 8,800 pounds (4,000 kilograms), and males may be more than 16 feet (4.9 meters) long.

Elephant seals cannot walk on all fours. They cannot rotate their hind flippers the way fur seals can. Elephant seals use their front flippers and strong stomach muscles to pull themselves forward, which makes them look like big caterpillars moving on land. Even though elephant seals cannot move very fast or far on land, they are excellent divers and swimmers.

When elephant seals molt, they lose large patches of skin and hair. Some females wallow in mud as they molt.

How Deep Can an Elephant Seal Dive?

Elephant seals have been known to dive more than 5,000 feet (1,524 meters). That’s almost a mile!

In fact, elephant seals spend most of their time at sea. They do not need to rest very long between dives. Sometimes, they dive for more than an hour without coming up. That's a long time to dive without breathing! How do they do it?

Elephant seals store a lot of oxygen in their blood. They store more oxygen than most other kinds of pinnipeds. They use this oxygen while they are underwater. This allows them to go for a long time without breathing air.

During their dives, elephant seals look for food. Their favorite foods are deepwater fish and squid. But they also eat small sharks and octopuses.

The Gray Seal

is found in the North Atlantic. Males grow to more than 9 feet (2.7 m) and females up to 7 feet (2.1 m). Weights are up to 630 and 550 pounds (285 and 250 kg), respectively. The color varies in different individuals from dark to light gray, brown, and silver. Underparts are usually lighter and the whole body surface is marked with spots.

The gray seal is Halichoerus grypus.

The Harp Seal

is found in the Arctic and northern Atlantic oceans. Both sexes reach a length of about 6 feet (1.8 m) and a weight of about 400 pounds (180 kg). Harp seals are grayish-yellow with a broad dark band starting at the shoulders and continuing along the sides. These seals are migratory and breed on drifting pack ice. The pups were formerly killed in large numbers for their white, woolly pelts.

The harp seal is Pagophilus groenlandicus.

When Is a Harp Seal a Whitecoat?

Newborn harp seals have silky, white coats. In fact, the pups are called whitecoats. Although fur seals are born on land in rookeries, harp seals are born on pack ice. These floating blocks of ice can be crowded and noisy.

Mothers stay with their pups for about 10 to 12 days. Then they go off to find food for themselves. They do not return to their pups.

After about two weeks, a pup’s white coat turns gray. The pup is also ready to swim now. It goes off to find food for itself. At first, the pup does not go very far. But as it gets older, it joins other young harp seals.

The Leopard Seal

is usually found around Antarctica. The adult bull is up to 10 feet (3 m) long, the female as much as 2 feet (60 cm) longer. The head of the leopard seal somewhat resembles that of a reptile. Body color is dark gray on the back, shading to light gray on the underparts. The entire body is marked with spots. The leopard seal is the only seal to feed on penguins and other seabirds.

The leopard seal is Hydrurga leptonyx.

Is There a Bad Guy in the Bunch?

Yes, there is, and it is the leopard seal. Leopard seals resemble leopards in the spotted pattern of their fur and the way they attack their prey.

Leopard seals have a bad reputation—partly because of their appearance and partly because of their actions. A leopard seal looks fierce. It has a big head, a wide mouth, and long canine teeth. And its long, thin body makes the leopard seal look more like a lizard than a seal. Underwater, it makes long, deep, droning sounds. It's not an animal you’d want to meet!

Leopard seals live near the South Pole. They often live alone—in the water or on pack ice. Like other pinnipeds, leopard seals swim and dive for their food. But leopard seals are also able to leap out of the water and onto ice to capture and kill their prey. They have been seen killing sea birds and penguins—as well as other seals.

The Ringed Seal

is one of the most abundant seals. It lives primarily in the Arctic Ocean and adjoining seas, but also in certain freshwater lakes. It averages four feet (1.2 m) in length and 140 pounds (65 kg) in weight. Ringed seals are grayish-black with light-colored oval rings above. Many are killed for skins, fur, oil, and meat.

Related species are the Baikal seal, of Lake Baikal in Siberia, and the Caspian seal, of the Caspian Sea, between Europe and Asia.

The ringed seal is Pusa hispida; the Baikal, P. sibirica; the Caspian, P. caspica.

Why Do Ringed Seals Build Ice Houses?

A mother ringed seal cares for her pup in a special way. She builds her pup an ice house!

Here you see how the mother builds the ice house. She swims under the ice until she finds a place where it has cracked. Where there are cracks, there are also holes. The mother seal comes up through a hole. She then uses her sharp claws to dig in the ice and snow. She hollows out a place to give birth and to care for her pup. The ice house is warm and snug—and safe!

Ringed seal pups are small. They do not have much blubber on their bodies. To keep warm, they cuddle close to their mothers. When they get a little older, the pups may dig tunnels to other nearby ice houses.

What Is So Special About Baikal Seals?

Baikal (by KAHL) seals are special because they live in a freshwater lake instead of a saltwater sea. That lake is Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world. Lake Baikal, which is in Siberia, is covered with ice much of the time. In winter, the ice may be 3 feet (90 centimeters) thick!

Baikal seals feed mostly on fish in the lake. Each seal usually makes its own breathing hole in the ice. Each seal also makes its own haul-out hole. Occasionally, two or more seals may share the holes they make.

In summer, the ice breaks up. Baikal seals haul out on rocks along the shore. Baikal seals are among the few pinnipeds that sometimes give birth to twins. Newborn Baikal pups have fur that is white and woolly. As they grow up, their coats become much darker.

The Weddell Seal

generally lives within sight of the Antarctic mainland. Males measure up to 10 feet (3 m), females up to 11 feet (3.4m). Both sexes weigh up to about 900 pounds (410 kg). The Weddell seal is dark gray above, lighter gray below. The entire body is marked with blotches and streaks.

The Weddell seal is Leptonychotes weddelli.

Other Earless Seals

include the hooded, or bladder-nose, seal (Cystophora cristata); bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus); ribbon seal (Histriophoca fasciata); crabeater seal (Lobodon carcinophagus); Ross seal (Omnatophoca rassi); Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus); Hawaiian monk seal (M. schauinslandi); and Caribbean monk seal (M. tropicalis). The Mediterranean and Hawaiian monk seals are endangered. The Caribbean monk seal is probably extinct; the last recorded sighting of one was in 1962.

How Did the Ribbon Seal Get Its Name?

A male ribbon seal has dark brown fur with white or light yellow bands around its neck, its front flippers, and its lower back. These bands look like ribbons.

A large group of these seals lives in the Bering Sea, which is part of the North Pacific Ocean. Ribbon seals like to haul out on pack ice. Pack ice is a large mass of floating ice.

Ribbon seals are speedy walkers on ice. Like many other pinnipeds, they use their front flippers for walking and their back flippers for swimming. On land, ribbon seals can move faster than a human running at top speed.

Which Piniped Wears Rings?

A ribbon seal may look as if it wears ribbons. But a ringed seal appears to wear rings. And it wears these rings all over its body!

Ringed seals are among the smallest pinnipeds. They live mostly in the Arctic, where there is a lot of ice. When ringed seals are breeding, they like fast ice. Fast ice is ice that is attached to land—rather than ice that is floating in the water. Nonbreeding adults like pack ice. Of course, there is a lot of water under the ice, and that is where ringed seals hunt for food.

Ringed seals have sharp claws on their front flippers. They use their claws to make breathing holes in the ice. When they stop hunting and come up for air, the seals must be very careful. A polar bear may be waiting at the hole for its next meal!

Do Hawaiian Monk Seals Feel Warm?

Hawaiian monk seals live in Hawaii, where the climate is warm all year. They have the same amount of blubber as seals in cooler climates. So they must try harder to cool off when they haul out.

The seals cool off by lying quietly in the shade or wet sand all day. They may lie on their dark backs with their light-colored bellies up. Their hearts beat slowly and they breathe slowly. They dive for food at night.

Hawaiian monk seals do not migrate to cooler places, but they may travel far to find food.

Long ago, there were many monk seals in Hawaii. But today, few are left.