The bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus), also called the square flipper seal, is a medium-sized pinniped that is found in and near to the Arctic Ocean. It gets its generic name from two Greek words (eri and gnathos) that refer to its heavy jaw. The other part of its Linnaean name means bearded and refers to its most characteristic feature, the conspicuous and very abundant whiskers. When dry, these whiskers curl very elegantly, giving the bearded seal a "raffish" look.
Distinguishing features of this earless seal include square fore flippers and thick bristles on its muzzle. Adults are greyish-brown in colour, darker on the back; rarely with a few faint spots on the back or dark spots on the sides. Occasionally the face and neck are reddish-brown. Bearded seal pups are born with a greyish-brown natal fur with scattered patches of white on the back and head. The bearded seal is unique in the subfamily Phocinae in having two pairs of teats, a feature it shares with monk seals.
Bearded seals reach about 2.1 m (6.9 ft) to 2.7 m (8.9 ft) in nose-to-tail length and from 200 kg (441 lb) to 430 kg (948 lb) in weight. Both sexes are about the same size.
Bearded seals are a primary food source for polar bears and for the Inuit of the Arctic coast. The Inuktitut name for the seal is Ugyuk or Oogrook or Oogruk. The seal's skin is used to cover a wooden frame boat (Umiak).
The body fat content of a bearded seal is 30–40%.
Hunting and Diet
Primarily benthic, bearded seals feed on a variety of small prey found along the ocean floor, including clams, squid, and fish. Their whiskers serve as feelers in the soft bottom sediments. Adults tend not to dive very deep, favoring shallow coastal areas no more than 300 m (980 ft) deep. Pups up to one year old, however, will venture much deeper, diving as deep as 450 m (1,480 ft).
Reproduction and Lifecycle
Bearded seals give birth in the spring. In the Canadian Arctic, seal pupping occurs in May. Further south, in Alaska, most pups are born in late April. Pups are born on small drifting ice floes in shallow waters, usually weighing around 30–40 kg. They enter the water only hours after they are born, and quickly become proficient divers. Mothers care for the pups for 18–24 days, during which time the pups grow at an average rate of 3.3 kg per day. During this time, pups consume an average of eight liters of milk a day. By the time they are weaned, the pups have grown to about one hundred kilograms.
Just before the pups are weaned, a new mating cycle takes place. Females ovulate at the end of their lactation period, but remain close to their pups, ready to defend them if necessary. During the mating season, male seals will "sing," emitting a long-drawn-out warbling note that ends in a sort of moan or sigh. This sound may attract females, or may be used by the males to proclaim their territory or their readiness for breeding. Males occupy the same areas from one year to the next.
Like many Arctic mammals, bearded seals employs a reproductive strategy known as delayed implantation. This means that the blastocyst is not implanted for two months after fertilization, most often becoming implanted in July. Thus, the seal's total gestation period is around eleven months, though its active gestation period is nine months.
On March 28, 2008, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service initiated a status review under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to determine if listing this ice seal species under the ESA is warranted.
There are two recognized subspecies of this seal:
- Erignathus barbatus barbatus
- Erignathus barbatus nautica
While the validity of these subspecies has been questioned, and is not yet supported by any molecular data, analysis of the animals' calls does indicate a differentiation between different populations.
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