Mammals in Antarctica: Seals
“Do polar bears live in Antarctica?”
No. This is one of the most common misconceptions about Antarctica, and a frequently asked question we get from passengers. While there are no large bears on the White Continent, there are a variety of whales and seals who call Antarctica home, at least for a few months of the year.
Today we will take a look at the seals that inhabit the ice and water surrounding Antarctica.
Southern / Antarctic Fur Seal
This seal belongs to the “eared” seal family, and resembles a large, oddly formed dog. Fur seals have strong back flippers, so they can move very quickly and with agility on land. Males can reach up to 200 kg and are four times larger than females. Fur seals were hunted almost to extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries, but their population has recovered thanks to the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals. These seals can be aggressive and charge at humans if they feel threatened.
- Estimated Population: 2-4 million
- Where they can be found: Sub-Antarctic Islands, largest breeding colony on South Georgia
The Weddell Seal is the southernmost mammal living in the world and part of the “true seal” family. Animals of the ice, these seals are very sedentary and inhabit the ice around Antarctica. They prefer broken ice pack so they can easily move between the water and ice. Males and females are about the same size, and are known for their large eyes, which are used to see in the dark Antarctic waters.
- Estimated population: 800,000 individuals
- Where they can be found: All over Antarctica, as far south as McMurdo Sound
Southern Elephant Seal
The largest seal in the world, male elephant seals can reach up to 4 tons in weight. Similar to the fur seal, the female is usually half the size of the male and commonly misidentified as a pup. They are called elephant seals partly because of their size and partly because of the male snout, or trunk, that he inflates to impress and intimidate rivals when competing with other males.
- Estimated population: Unknown due to different breeding times and locations
- Where they can be found: Southern islands off the coasts of Argentina, South Africa & New Zealand; sub-Antarctic islands of South Georgia & the South Shetlands
The most abundant seal in the world, the crabeater seal is estimated to be the second most populous large mammal in the world, after humans. Crabeaters make their home on the pack ice floes on the coasts of Antarctica and are specialized in predation of Antarctic krill with their sieve-like teeth. They have slender bodies and long snouts, with males and females about the same size and varying in color from dark brown to blonde.
- Estimated Population: 15 million individuals (could be as high as 50 million)
- Where they can be found: Distributed throughout the coasts around Antarctica
Reaching up to 600 kg, the leopard seal is one of the top predators in Antarctica and the second largest seal. These seals have large heads and their mouths open wide, revealing sharply pointed molars. Leopard seals hunt Antarctic fur seals, penguins and fish, and live a solitary life, only coming together to mate. They are bold and curious animals and can be hostile toward humans.
- Where they can be found: Circumpolar distribution in the waters surrounding Antarctica
- Estimated population: up to 220,000 individuals
Up Next: Whales
Sources: Antarctica.gov.au, Wikipedia, Cool Antarctica