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Focusing on another one of our northern unique pinnipeds, the bearded seal is perhaps one of the more recognizable seal species. This seal is found primarily in the Arctic Circle, ranging as far south as Bristol Bay, Alaska in the Pacific and Labrador in the Atlantic. That being said, some individuals are occasionally found as far south as Japan and China, while vagrants have also been confirmed even further south in Portugal and Spain. Historically, the fossil record even indicates that they used to be found on the east coast of the US as far south as South Carolina!

The bearded seal appears to have (you guessed it) a bushy beard! When hauled out on sea ice, their long and numerous whiskers dry out and curl, giving them the appearance of having a beard. Sporting a greyish brown coat, they rarely have spots on their body, but instead occasionally have a more reddish-brown coloration on the face and neck. The bearded seal also has fairly unique flippers for its up 8 foot, 900 lb body – they are very small but also quite square in shape!

Bearded seals love to spend time on sea ice. Notice the long bushy whiskers that resemble a beard! Photo: Martha de Jong Lantink.


Their beards aren’t just for looks! These whiskers are very sensitive and they use them to find their food, using them to find smaller prey in the sediment, similar to how a walrus does. They then use a combination of water jetting and suction to eat the prey items. They feed on or near the sea bottom on a variety of invertebrates (like shrimp, crab, clam and whelks), but also on fish (like cod and sculpin). One of the most interesting things is that they wear their teeth down very quickly, so that by around age 9 (they can live to over 25) many have teeth that barely extend above the gum line, and look a little toothless! But if you are mainly sucking your food, perhaps teeth aren’t that important. Because they feed on the bottom, some end up with rust colored faces and flippers. This comes from the iron compounds in the substrate that stick to the hair when feeding (they don’t look rust colored after molting!).  They don’t dive very deep, usually less than 325ft and like to forage in less than 650ft where they can reach the bottom. But the record dive was over 1,600ft, so they can go deeper!


These seals prefer areas with lots of sea ice (ice that is not attached to land). While they can make breathing holes with their heads and claws, they would rather have areas with natural openings. They can also be found on land or shorefast ice (that is attached to land) and even up in rivers. The sea ice is a strategic choice, it gives them a little protection from their main predator, the polar bear, during whelphing (pupping), nursing, molting and resting. They even bask on the ice during late spring to increase their temperature to make molting easier (where they get a whole new coat!).

These seals are generally solitary. Without safety in numbers they need to be wary – so they rest on the ice floes with their heads facing down toward the water (they can hear and smell what is behind, and see what is in front). This allows them to make a quick escape from predators. But sometimes they feel comfortable enough (or tired enough) to sleep in open water – they hang vertically in the water column with their head towards the surface.

This bearded seal is ready to dive straight into the water at the first sign of trouble. Photo: AG-ChapelHill/Getty Images.

Male bearded seals are very vocal, using elaborate songs to advertise breeding condition or establish in water territories. They make trills, moans, groans, ascents and sweeps (listen to some of these incredible calls here!). The trills are the most interesting, because they can be heard up to 12 miles away and for up to 3 minutes! Males become sexually mature at 6-7 years of age and return to specific breeding territories each year. Scarring on some males indicates that fighting may be involved.

Females become sexually mature at 5-6 years of age, and like other pinnipeds have delayed implantation (the fertilized egg does not implant right away) for 2.5 months with a gestation of 8.5 months. They give birth to one pup in mid March-May on small ice floes (where they may be afforded more protection from polar bears). Pups nurse for about 24 days on milk that is 50% fat, gaining 3.3kg (or over 7lbs per day). Pups can swim almost immediately, spending half their time in the water after only a few days and being able to dive to 200ft after only one week. Pups will learn to catch fish before being weaned as their mother does not fast during the nursing period. Talk about fast learners! But in such a harsh environment as the artic, you have to be ready for anything, even if you have just been born.


There are estimated to be approximately 500,000 bearded seals worldwide, however it should be noted that this count is not accurate, mostly due to the difficulties of surveying these Arctic species.

Although bearded seals in general are not considered endangered, there are two specific populations that are listed by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as “threatened”: the Beringia population, and Okhotsk population. These same two populations are listed by the Marine Mammal Protection Act as “depleted”.

While it is thought that most bearded seal populations are doing fine, their location makes them difficult to survey for accurate numbers. Photo: John Jansen.


  • Predation: Bearded seals are at risk from predation from polar bears, killer whales (orcas), and even walruses!
  • Subsistence Harvest: While the US prohibits killing of bearded seals they are still hunted in parts of their range. At this point in time, there are no known commercial harvests so it is believed that the small number of seals taken by indigenous people is not detrimental to their overall population numbers. Bearded seal skin is particularly tough, and therefore makes it particularly valuable for making shoes, boat covers, tents, etc.
  • Climate Change: As you might expect, one of the major concerns for bearded seals is that of climate change. Their dependence on sea ice makes them particularly susceptible to the warming of Arctic regions (resulting in loss of sea ice). In addition, as sea ice declines there is more potential for shipping traffic to increase in these regions (leading to possible problems with noise and/or ship strikes). Oil and gas exploration and development are also concerns, which may increase risks of oil spills, or toxin introduction into the environment.

Fun Facts

  • Bearded seals are the largest true seal species in the Arctic.
  • Did you know that bearded seals have 4 nipples?! It’s true! The only other species of seals that do are the monk seals, and it is thought these two seals may be more closely related genetically.
  • The bearded seal’s common name is fairly obvious from their appearance, and their Latin name is just as descriptive! Erignathus barbatus literally means “heavy-jawed bearded one”. Pretty cool huh?!

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