Ringed seals are the ultimate champions of icy waters in the Arctic. As one of the most iconic marine mammals inhabiting the polar regions, the seal captivates scientists and nature enthusiasts alike with its unique adaptations, behavior, and vital role in the Arctic ecosystem. Join us to discover the incredible and fun facts about the ringed seal.
1. They’re the smallest seals
The ringed seal is one of the cutest animals in the Arctic. Compared to other members in the Phocidae family, also known as “earless seals,” they are the smallest seal species.
The mature seals often have a size of about 5 feet in length and a weight of 110-150 pounds. However, these figures may differ depending on the subspecies and geographic location. To survive in the harsh Arctic conditions, these small seals depend on a substantial layer of blubber to keep them warm.
As earless seals, they don’t have visible external ears. Nevertheless, their inner ears function effectively, allowing them to hear without any issues. These seals, in contrast to eared seals like sea lions and fur seals, lack the ability to reverse their hind flippers while on land. This characteristic limits their agility on land but enhances their efficiency as swimmers.
These remarkable creatures exhibit distinct features characterized by circular patterns adorning their backs, earning them the name “ringed seals.” They come in a dark grey coat with lighter grey rings, while their underbellies sport a shade of light gray. These visual attributes serve as a brilliant form of camouflage, helping them blend into their surroundings.
During the spring season, males undergo a fascinating transformation as their faces darken, attributed to the secretion from their oil glands. In contrast, their female counterparts maintain a lighter and more delicate appearance during this time.
There are 5 ringed seal subspecies, including the Arctic, Ladoga, Okhotsk, Saimaa, and Baltic ringed seal. The Saimaa species is the rarest ringed seal with about 400 individuals remaining.
2. They make homes in the wide areas
Known as “ice seals,” the ringed seals are predominantly found in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. Their habitat is intricately linked to the presence of ice, as their entire life is on ice rather than land.
These seals can be spotted across the Arctic Ocean and its neighboring seas, including the Northern Pacific Ocean, with a notable concentration along the Southern Bering Sea. During years with substantial ice coverage, they can even travel to the Sea of Okhotsk in Russia and Bristol Bay in Alaska.
In addition, these seals have been documented to venture into river systems and freshwater lakes, such as Finland’s Lake Saimaa and Russia’s Lake Ladoga. It may come as a surprise, but two types of these seals, the Ladoga and Saimaa ringed seals, are capable of living in freshwater environments.
Moreover, there have been sporadic reports of these seals being sighted in the US (New Jersey) and Portugal.
3. They eat what’s nearby
These seals are carnivorous mammals that possess a versatile appetite, feasting on a wide range of small marine species. These opportunistic hunters prioritize convenience when eating over the particular type of prey they consume.
They will feed on any fish or crustacean that is accessible near the shore and within a reasonable distance. Within their locations, there is always a diverse range of 10-15 prey types. However, sometimes, they can embark on hunting expeditions, diving as deep as 150 meters and enduring underwater for up to 45 minutes.
Their diet includes fish, crustaceans, shrimps, herrings, and other invertebrates. The composition of their diet fluctuates depending on several factors, including the season, age, and location. Adult seals primarily rely on fish as their main food source, especially cod species, like Arctic and saffron cod. On the other hand, the young have a tendency to consume a larger proportion of invertebrates.
During the autumn season, the seal enhances its food consumption to build up fat reserves for the winter.
Ringed seals encounter considerable risks from predators within their habitat, such as walruses, orcas, Greenland sharks, and notably, polar bears. These bears can take them down both on land and in the water, devouring them to get blubber at a rate of one every 2-6 days. The seal pups are often preyed upon by Arctic foxes and glaucous gulls.
To protect themselves, they construct snow caves on the icy terrain, establishing several shelters for added protection. With graceful swiftness, they glide through icy waters at speeds up to 10 km/h, deftly occupying cracks and crevices, effortlessly evading any lurking danger.
Ringed seals depend heavily on ice, encompassing both seasonal and permanent ice, for most of their activities, such as resting, breeding, and molting. They stay on expansive ice floes, typically measuring at least 48 meters in diameter. In certain cases where seasonal ice is absent, certain subspecies resort to coming ashore.
The extent of their territory varies, with females occupying larger ranges compared to males, particularly in the winter season when their movements are constrained by the presence of ice.
One of the most remarkable features of ringed seals is their ability to create breathing holes within the icy surface. By utilizing their sharp front flipper claws for excavation, they can establish these openings. This skill grants them the capacity to inhabit regions that are inaccessible to other creatures that depend on ice. This adaption plays a vital role in their survival strategy.
When situated on the ice, the ringed seal stays close to its breathing hole, ensuring a rapid escape from potential threats.
Normally solitary, these seals tend to avoid contact with other seals except for the mating season. However, the Ladoga subspecies has been seen hauled out in groups during the ice-free season. From mid-May to mid-July, these seal experiences seasonal molt. They congregate in small clusters on floating ice floes as they shed their winter fur. During this time, they reduce their feeding activity.
To communicate, they use different sounds, such as whines, roars, grunts, and chirps. They possess remarkably advanced sensory abilities, relying on their visual acuity, passive listening skills, and tactile awareness to facilitate tasks like looking for food, navigation, and avoiding predators.
These seals are not aggressive. However, they may bite when threatened or provoked.
During the later part of winter and the beginning of spring, these creatures establish their dens within snowdrifts and gradually shift to sunning themselves outside their caves as the temperatures increase.
As April and May usher in the breeding season, male seals transform. Their faces become darker, their bodies smell like gasoline, and the seals become more aggressive. At the same time, mature females begin to attract wandering males. They spend several days together and then engage in mating before the male eventually departs.
The female goes through a gestation period of around nine months. When the moment for giving birth arrives, she creates an ice den and gives birth to a lone pup in late winter or early spring.
The pup, weighing less than ten pounds, possesses vibrant white and fluffy fur. This coat helps them blend into their snowy surroundings. Within three weeks, the baby sheds its coat and replaces it with a new grey one. The mother nurses her offspring with milk that is abundant in fat for 5 – 7 weeks. This nutrient-rich milk enables the pup to double its weight during the phase.
In the first week, the young learn swimming skills from their mother. The female relocates the pup to various lairs, usually between 4 and 6 lairs. After being weaned, the young ringed seal becomes independent and lives alone. Conversely, the mother resumes her reproductive cycle, seeking out a new male for mating and subsequently giving birth.
Ringed seals boast a lengthy lifespan, spanning around 25 to 30 years.
6. Threats and conservation status
Ringed seals, despite their classification as “least concern” by the IUCN, encounter numerous challenges that threaten their existence. These remarkable creatures are protected within U.S. waters and by U.S. citizens through the implementation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).
Human activities pose a significant threat to these seals. They are hunted by humans for food, exposed to harmful substances released by humans in their habitats like oil, and often get trapped in discarded fishing equipment, as seen in Lake Saimaa, Finland, and Lake Ladoga, Russia. Once get stuck, they often get drowned. Moreover, the potential rise in ship activity in the Arctic region could severely impact their populations adversely.
Nevertheless, the main threat to the ringed seal population is climate change and global warming. We all know that these species rely on ice to live. The accelerated melting of Arctic ice has resulted in the contraction of their habitat. This means that there are fewer chances for them to survive.