Bearded Seals (Erignatus Barbatus) are the largest of the Northern phocids and get their name from their long whiskers. There are two recognised subspecies and, in an effort to protect the species, they are both listed on Appendix III under the Bern Convention. Global warming is a major concern for these seals, their indiscriminate killing is forbidden and their exploitation closely regulated. However, of the seal killing nations, only Norway is a signatory to this convention and competition between Bearded Seals and commercial fisheries over crabs and clams is fierce. Of further concern is oil and gas exploration in their habitat, which will lead to prolonged disturbances as well as pollution of the seals themselves, their habitat and their food supply.
BREEDING HABITS OF BEARDED SEALS
In order to attract females, males will emit a lengthy warbling sound, culminating in what could be described as a sigh. They use this sound to declare territory and promote themselves as eligible and available.
Pupping takes place on the ice, usually between the months of March-May. Mothers usually choose small ice floes immediately adjacent to open water. It is believed this makes them less vulnerable to predation from Polar Bears. Gestation period is 11 months.
Pups are born grayish brown in colour with occasional white spots on their back and head. As the pups mature, the coat will darken and the spots disappear.
Pups weigh around 35kg at birth and as much as 85kg at the time of weaning, a mere 3 weeks later. They consume as much as 8 liters of milk per day. Newborns measure around 1.3m in length and take to the water within hours of birth.
Sexual dimorphism in this species is not that apparent. Males and females tend to be more or less the same size. Pregnant or lactating cows may be slightly heavier than the adult bulls.
Females reach sexual maturity when they are around 5-6 years old, males when they are 6-7 years old. Both males and females measure on average 2.2m in length and weigh in at +/- 250 kg
- Their scientific name is derived from two Greek words, Eri and Gnathos, together which mean “Heavy Jaw.” The latter Latin Barbatus refers to its whiskers.
- They are also known as “Square Flipper Seals,” Phoque Barbu or by the traditional Inuits as “Oogruk.”
- They are unusual in that they have 4 nipples. This is very unique and is a feature that only Monk Seals share.
- Their whiskers (vibrissae) serve as feelers when they are searching for food among the sediment on the ocean floor.
- Aside from Polar Bears, Killer Whales and walruses, Bearded Seals are also targeted by the Inuits who favour their skins as coverings for wooden boat frames as it is both tough and buoyant.
Bearded Seals can have a layer of blubber almost 7cm thick. When they are at their fattest, during late autumn and early spring, Bearded Seals can be almost as wide as they are long. “Waist measurements” have been recorded as 83% of total body length.
Adults prefer not to dive too deep, usually not more than 300m. Pups tend to be more adventurous and may dive as deep as 450m.
Small prey is swallowed underwater while larger prey is brought to the surface to be eaten.
Bearded seals will ram their heads through thin sheets of ice in order to create breathing holes.
They can often be seen resting on ice floes, facing downwind with their heads facing downwards into the water. This is so they can smell a predator coming from behind, see it coming from the front and beat a hasty retreat as needed.