Harp Seal

These "saddlebacks" are historically known as true ice enthusiasts, visiting the land mainly for breeding and spending the bulk of their lives at sea

Harp Seal

Name: Harp seal or saddleback seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus)

Length: 1.7-2 metres (5.5- 6.5 feet)

Weight: 120 to 150 kg (265-330 pounds)

Location: Atlantic side of the Arctic

Conservation status: Least Concern

Diet: Fish and crustaceans

Appearance: Harp seals have many different appearances throughout life. When first born, they have a white fluffy coat. In adolescence, they have a silver-gray coat spotted with black. Only in adulthood do they get their distinctive black harp (or wishbone-shaped) markings.

How do harp seals hunt?

Harp seals are extremely agile swimmers, able to catch a wide variety of fish and crustaceans. They can stay underwater for 15 minutes. Their thick coats of blubber not only keep them warm but also serve as a source of nutrition when food resources are thin. Harp seals have proportionally large eyes, giving them excellent vision. When underwater, their nostril slits close, so they cannot smell anything. They then use their vibrissae (whiskers), which are sensitive to touch and possibly even to vibrations caused by the movement of prey. Harp seals are able to dive as deep as 270 metres (885 feet).

Are harp seals social?

Harp seals are very social around mating season, forming huge colonies on land. They often travel and hunt in large pods made up of dozens or hundreds of other harp seals. They have a wide variety of calls, some for warning other seals off, others for attracting mates.

What are harp seal mating rituals like?

Harp seals migrate south in the winter. While males court females on land, the actual mating occurs in the water. Male harp seals fight for mating rights by biting and beating each other with their flippers. Dominant males will mate with several different females. The pregnancy lasts about 11 months, and pups are born around February. The pups are born with white fur, weigh about 11 kg (24 pounds), and are around 80 cm (31 inches) long. 

The nursing period only lasts about 10 days, during which harp seal females do not feed themselves. The pups grow quickly, fattening up to nearly 40 kg (88 pounds). Harp seal mothers then abruptly leave to commence mating, leaving the pups behind. Pups become sedentary to conserve their stores of fat, but they can lose up to half their body weight during this period. After seven or eight weeks of this, they learn to swim and hunt for themselves. 

Harp seal pups go through six distinct stages:

  1. “Yellow-jacket” – The pups’ white coats are stained yellow by placental fluids when they are born.
  2. “White-coat” – The nursing stage, when pup coats lose their yellowish tinge, becoming completely white.
  3. “Ragged-jacket” – The harp seal pups start to molt, losing their white fur and revealing their adult silver-gray skin underneath.
  4. “Beater” – Now that they are completely silver-grey, pups start “beating” at the water with their front flippers in order to learn how to swim.
  5. “Bedlamer” – The young harp seals are now in the sea.
  6. Adult – Male harp seals reach maturity at about seven years of age, females about five.

How long do harp seals live?

Harp Seals live about 25-35 years in the wild.

How many harp seals are there today?

Based on estimates from 2015, there are about 4,500,000 mature harp seals in the world.

Do harp seals have any predators?

Harp seals are prey for orcas, Greenland sharks, and Polar Bears. 

Seven super harp seal facts

  • Harp seals are sometimes called “saddlebacks” due to the saddle-shaped markings on their backs.
  • Mother harp seals can identify their own young out of the thousands of other pups in a colony by their scent.
  • Seals that wander away from the herd are referred to as vagrants.
  • After being weaned, harp seal pup teeth will not grow if they do not feed.
  • Harp seals only spend significant amounts of time on land during the mating and birthing season. The rest of their lives are spent in the water.
  • The annual migration to and from the mating grounds can add up to 5000 km (3,100 miles) for harp seals.
  • Their binomial name, Pagophilus groenlandicus, means “ice-lover from Greenland.”

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