Bearded Seal (Erignathus barbatus)
The Bearded Seal (Erignathus barbatus) is distinguishable by its very long, curled whiskers which fan out from the muzzle, and are the reason for the second part of its latin name. The seal is an Arctic species with a broad distribution, and therefore currently listed as Least Concern. Estimated population size = 440,000. However, surveys used to arrive at this figure are either out of date or scientifically unviable, meaning that the population trend is often described as data deficient.
E. barbatus are medium large sized, heavy-bodied, true seals (males ♂ up to 2.5 m long/ 425 kg, females ♀ up to 2.5 m/ 425 kg) with comparatively small heads and short front and rear flippers. Front flippers are also broad and square-shaped. Their heads have no ear flaps, short, compact snouts, heavy jaws (the reason for the first part of their latin name) and the aforementioned long, pale whiskers which, particularly when dry, curl over at the ends, giving a fairly ‘distinguished’ look. The seals range from pale grey through to brown, usually darker on the back than underneath, and rarely with spots. The facial pattern is often quite distinctive with paler patches on the cheeks, muzzle, eyebrows and sides of the head, and sometimes they have a rusty colouration on the face or flippers. Unusually, E. barbatus has 4 nipples rather than 2.
Feeding for E. barbatus is primarily done on the seafloor, utilising their sensitive whiskers to locate prey, and a powerful sucking action to extract it from the sediment. This benthic prey often contains crustaceans, bivalves, gastropods, worms, cephalopods, fish such as cod and even algae. Like many other seals, this diet varies seasonally with availability, but also according to age. Populations specialise in exploiting local prey items across their range.
Sexual maturity – males ♂ 6-7 years old/ females ♀ 3-6 years old.
Male E. barbatus have loud, unique mating calls which they emit underwater to establish territory and attract females. They are aggressive during the breeding season, competing with rivals for rights to multiple cows. Birth occurs on the ice during the spring and the pups have a soft, greyish brown lanugo which they lose very quickly. They are capable of swimming almost immediately and spend much of their weaning period in the water learning to dive. The mother too will spend much of this time in the water, returning to land to nurse the pup several times a day. Weaning takes approximately 15-24 days and by which time the youngster will have started to learn to feed and fend for itself. At this point the female will come into oestrus and mate again, with delayed implantation meaning active gestation beginning around July. The peak of moulting also coincides with the end of the pup weaning period. Maximum life expectancy of E. barbatus is about 31 years.
There are two recognised subspecies of E. barbatus:
Atlantic Bearded Seal (Erignathus barbatus barbatus)
Pacific Bearded Seal (Erignathus barbatus nauticus)
Photos: (1) Hanna Michel (2) Roger Brendhagen