Harp seal

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Harp seal
Harp seal.jpg
Scientific classification Red Pencil Icon.png
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Clade: Pinnipedia
Family: Phocidae
Genus: Pagophilus
Gray, 1844
P. groenlandicus
Binomial name
Pagophilus groenlandicus
Erxleben, 1777
Sattelrobbe-Phoca groenlandica-World.png

Phoca groenlandica

The harp seal also known a saddleback seal or Greenland Seal, (Pagophilus groenlandicus) is a species of earless seal, or true seal, native to the northernmost Atlantic Ocean and Arctic Ocean. Originally in the genus Phoca with a number of other species, it was reclassified into the monotypic genus Pagophilus in 1844. In Latin, its scientific name translates to "ice-lover from Greenland," and its taxonomic synonym, Phoca groenlandica translates to "Greenlandic seal." [2]



Whitecoated pup Blanchon-idlm2006.jpg
Whitecoated pup
Skull of a harp seal Pagophilus groenlandicus 02 MWNH 188.JPG
Skull of a harp seal

The mature harp seal has pure black eyes. It has a silver-gray fur covering its body, with black harp or wishbone-shaped markings dorsally. Adult harp seals grow to be 1.7 to 2.0 m (5 ft 7 in to 6 ft 7 in) long and weigh from 115 to 140 kg (254 to 309 lb). [3] The harp seal pup often has a yellow-white coat at birth due to staining from amniotic fluid, but after one to three days, the coat whitens and remains white for 2–3 weeks, until the first molt. [2] Adolescent harp seals have a silver-gray coat spotted with black.


Harp seals are considered sexually dimorphic, as the males are slightly larger, and more decorated. Males weigh an average of 135 kg (298 lb), and reach a length up to 1.9 m (6.2 ft), while females weigh an average of 120 kg (260 lb) and reach up to 1.8 metres (5.9 ft). Males generally have a more defined dorsal harp marking and a darker head, while some females never develop the marking and remain spotted. [2]


Compared to other phocid seals, the harp seal dives from shallow to moderately deep depths. [2] Dive depth varies with season, time of day and location. In the Greenland Sea sub-population, the average dive rate is around 8.3 dives per hour and dives range from a depth of less than 20 to over 500m. [4] Dive duration ranges from less than 2 minutes to just over 20 minutes. [4] During the spring and summer when seals forage along the pack ice in the Greenland Sea, most dives are less than 50m. [4] In the late fall and winter, dive depth has been found to increase, particularly in the Denmark Strait, where the mean dive depth was found to be 141m. [4]

Lactating female harp seals spend about 80% of the time in the water and 20% of the time on the fast-ice weaning or in close proximity to their pups. However, almost half of the time spent in the water is at the surface, which is well beyond what is expected to recover from their dives. [5] This behavior allows the mother harp seal to conserve energy and avoid the harsh conditions of the fast-ice while remaining in close proximity to its pup. As with most phocids, the mother harp seal requires vast amounts of energy to ensure sufficient mass transfer to the growing, weaning pup, however they still remain within their aerobic dive limit for 99% of dives. [5]


Harp seals combine anatomical and behavioral approaches to managing their body temperatures, instead of elevating their metabolic rate and energy requirements. [6] Their lower critical temperature is believed to be under −10 degrees Celsius in air. [7] Blubber insulates the Harp seals core but not the flippers as much, instead the flippers rely on having circulatory adaptations to help prevent heat loss through their flippers. [8] A thick coat of blubber insulates its body and provides energy when food is scarce or during fasting. [9] Blubber also streamlines its body for more efficient swimming. Brown fat warms blood as it returns from the body surface as well as providing energy, most importantly for newly-weaned pups. [2]

Flippers act as heat exchangers, warming or cooling the seal as needed. On ice, the seal can press its fore-flippers to its body and its hind-flippers together to reduce heat loss. [2] They can also redirect blood flow from the periphery to minimize heat loss. [9]


The harp seals' eyes are large for its body size and contain a large spherical lens, which improves its focusing ability. Its pupil is mobile to help it adapt to the intense glare of the Arctic ice. Its retina is rod-dominated and backed by a cat-like and reflective tapetum lucidum, enhancing its low light sensitivity. Its cones are most sensitive to blue-green spectra, while its rods help sense light intensity and may provide some color discrimination. Its cornea is lubricated by lacrimal glands, to protect the eye from sea water damage. The lack of tear ducts to drain secretions to the nasal passages contribute to the harp seals "eye rings" on land. This can be an indication of the hydration level of the seal. [2]

Seal showing hydration rings around the eyes due to lacrimal gland secretions. (Note: the animal pictured is Halichoerus grypus rather than Pagophilus groenlandicus.) GreySealEyeRings.jpg
Seal showing hydration rings around the eyes due to lacrimal gland secretions. (Note: the animal pictured is Halichoerus grypus rather than Pagophilus groenlandicus.)

On ice, the mother identifies her offspring by smell. This sense may also warn of an approaching predator. Underwater, the seal closes its nostrils and smells nothing. [2]

Its whiskers, called vibrissae, lie in horizontal rows on either side of its snout. They provide a touch sense with labeled line coding, and underwater, also respond to low-frequency vibrations, such as movement. [2]


Similar to most pinnipeds, the harp seal exhibits a carnivorous diet. [10] They have a diverse diet which includes several dozen species of fish and invertebrates. [11] The White Sea population migrates northward in the summer to forage extensively in the Barents Sea, where common prey items include krill, capelin (Mallotus villosus), herring (Clupea harengus), flat fish and Gadiform fish. [12] Harp seals are known to exhibit some preference for prey, though the driving force behind the composition of their diet is prey abundance. [13] Diet and abundance analysis of the Svalbard population found that this population feeds predominantly on krill, followed closely by polar cod(Arctogladus glacialis). [12] Some individuals from the Greenland Sea sub-population have been recorded to forage in the Barents Sea alongside the White Sea sub-population during the late summer and fall. [4] The diet of the Barents Sea population is dominated by herring and polar cod but these seals show a negative preference towards krill and amphipods, which is thought to be a result of their tendency towards deeper dives. [13] In the western N. Atlantic population segment, foraging takes place both near and offshore of Newfoundland. The most preferred prey items include Arctic cod (Boreogadus saida), capelin, Greenland halibut (Reinhardtius hippoglossoides) and American plaice (Hippoglossoides platessoides). [14] As in other populations and foraging areas, diet varies with distance from shore. Arctic cod yields a higher diet percentage nearshore, while capelin is more prominent offshore. [14] However, capelin is understood as the preferred prey item in both locales. [14]

Life history

Harp seals spend relatively little time on land compared with time at sea. These are social animals and can be quite vocal in groups. They form large colonies, within which, smaller groups with their own hierarchy are believed to form. [2] Groups of several thousand form during pupping and mating season. [15] Harp seals are able to live over 30 years in the wild. [2]

On the ice, pups call their mothers by "yelling," and "mumble" while playing with others. Adults "growl" and "warble" to warn off conspecifics and predators. [2] Underwater, adults have been recorded using more than 19 types of vocalization during courting and mating. [2]

Reproduction and Development

The harp seal is a fast ice breeder and is believed to have a promiscuous mating system. [16] Breeding occurs between mid-February and April. [15] Courtship peaks during mid-March and involves males performing underwater displays, using bubbles, vocalizations, and paw movements to court females. [17] Females, who remain on the ice, will resist copulation on unless underwater. [17]

Females mature sexually between ages five to six. [2] Annually thereafter, they may bear one pup, usually in late February. [2] The gestation period lasts about 11.5 months, with a fetal development phase of 8 months. [17] There have been reported cases of twin births, but singletons are vastly more common. [18] The fertilized egg grows into an embryo which remains suspended in the womb for up to three months before implantation, to delay birth until sufficient pack ice is available. [2]

Harp seal births are rapid, with recorded lengths as short as 15 seconds in duration. [17] In order to cope with the shock of a rapid change in environmental temperature and undeveloped blubber layers, the pup relies on solar heating, and behavioral responses such as shivering or seeking warmth in the shade or even water. [17]

Newborn pups weigh 11 kilograms (24 lb) on average and are 80–85 cm (31–33 in) long. [2] After birth, the mother feeds only her own pup. During the approximately 12-day long nursing period, the mother does not hunt, and loses up to 3 kilograms (6.6 lb) per day. [2] Harp seal milk initially contains 25% fat (this number increases to 40% by weaning as the mother fasts) and pups gain over 2.2 kilograms (4.9 lb) per day while nursing, quickly thickening their blubber layer. [17] During this time, the juvenile's "greycoat" grows in beneath the white neonatal coat, and the pup increases its weight to 36 kg (79 lb). Weaning is abrupt; the mother turns from nursing to promiscuous mating, leaving the pup behind on the ice. While courtship starts on the ice, mating usually takes place in the water.

After abandonment, in the post-weaning phase, the pup becomes sedentary to conserve body fat. Within a few days, it sheds its white coat, reaching the "beater" stage. [2] This name comes from the sound a beater's tail makes as the seal learns to swim. [18] Pups begin to feed on at 4 weeks of age, but still draw on internal sources, relying first on stored energy in the body core rather than blubber. [17] During this time the ice begins to melt leaving them vulnerable to polar bears and other predators. This fast can reduce their weight up to 50%. As many as 30% of pups die during their first year, due in part to their early immobility on land. [2]

Juvenile harp seal- a "bedlamer." Harp seal pointing upwards.jpg
Juvenile harp seal- a "bedlamer."

Around 13–14 months old, the pup molts again, becoming a "bedlamer". [18] Juveniles molt several times, producing a "spotted harp", before the adults' harp-marked pelt fully emerges after several years (or not at all in females). [2]

Seals congregate annually on the ice to molt, pup and breed before migrating to summer feeding grounds. Their lifespan can be over 30 years. [2]


The current global harp seal population estimates total around 2.25 to 3 million individuals, with 3 distinct breeding stocks: 500,000–800,000 individuals in the Northeast Atlantic, 100,000–150,000 in the Greenland Sea, and 1–1.57 million in the Northwest Atlantic. [17] The largest population in the Northwest Atlantic is estimated to produce 250,000–400,000 young annually. [17] Due to their dependence on pack ice for breeding, the harp seal range is restricted to areas where pack ice forms seasonally. [2] The western North Atlantic stock, which is the largest, is located off eastern Canada. [18] This population is further divided into two separate herds based on the breeding location. The Front herd breeds off the coast of Labrador and Newfoundland, and the Gulf herd breeds near the Magdalen Islands in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. A second stock breeds on the "West Ice" off eastern Greenland. A third stock breeds on the "East Ice" in the White Sea, which is off the north coast of Russia below the Barents ea. Breeding occurs between mid-February and April, and varies somewhat for each stock. [15] The three stocks are allopatric and don't interbreed. [19]

There are two recognised subspecies: [19]

Migration and vagrancy

Harp seals are strongly migratory. The northwest population regularly moves up to 4,000 kilometres (2,500 mi) northeast outside of the breeding season; [20] one individual was located off the north Norwegian coast, 4,640 kilometres (2,880 mi) east northeast of its tagging location. [21] Their navigational accuracy is high, with good eyesight an important factor. [20] [22] They are occasionally found as vagrants, south of their normal range. In Great Britain, a total of 31 vagrants were recorded between 1800 and 1988, [23]

More recently, they reached Lindisfarne in Northumberland in September 1995, [24] and the Shetland Islands in 1987. The latter was linked to a mass movement of harp seals into Norwegian waters; by mid-February 1987, 24,000 were reported drowned in fishing nets and perhaps 30,000 (about 10% of the world population) had invaded fjords as far south as Oslo. The animals were emaciated, likely due to humans competing for their prey. [25]

Harp seals can strand on Atlantic coasts, often in warmer months, due to dehydration and parasite load. [26] Harp seals often consume snow to stay hydrated, but in mild winters may not have enough available. Several centers are active in seal rescue and rehabilitation, including IFAW, NOAA, and the New England Aquarium. Harp seals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act in the United States.

Seal hunting

All 3 populations are hunted commercially, mainly by Canada, Norway, Russia and Greenland. [27]

In Canada, commercial hunting season is from November 15 to May 15. Most sealing occurs in late March in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and during the first or second week of April off Newfoundland, in an area known as "the Front". This peak spring period is generally what is referred to as the "Canadian seal hunt". Hunting Canadian whitecoats has been banned since 1987. Since 2000, harp seals that are targeted during the hunt are often found to be less than a year old, known as "beaters". [28] In 2006, the St. Lawrence hunt officially started on March 25 due to thin ice caused by the year's milder temperatures. Inuit people living in the region hunt mainly for food and, to a lesser extent, commerce. [27]

In 2003, the three-year quota granted by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was increased to 975,000, with a maximum of 350,000 in any two consecutive years. In 2006, 325,000 harp seals, as well as 10,000 hooded seals and 10,400 grey seals were killed. An additional 10,000 animals are allocated to First Nations hunters.

In 2005, the Independent Veterinarians' Working Group (IVWG) recommended a three-step process for hunters to kill the seals with little or no pain for the seals, as long as the process is completed in rapid succession. [28] The process is as followed:

  1. Stun the seal on the head using tools, such as a rifle or a club, to immediately kill the animal or cause it to permanently lose consciousness.
  2. Ensure that step 1 was completed correctly, and the skull is irreversibly damaged.
  3. Cut the axillary arteries along both armpits and cut along the belly to prevent blood from reaching the brain, confirming its death.

In 2009, this process was included in both the 'Conditions of License' for the Canadian hunt as well as the Canadian Marine Mammal Regulations. [28]

The Canadian seal hunt is monitored by the Canadian government. Although approximately 70% of the hunt occurs on "the Front", most private monitors focus on the St. Lawrence hunt, due to its more convenient location.

About 70,000–90,000 animals are taken from the population off the coast of Greenland. [27]

The 2004 West Ice total allowable catch (TAC) was 15,000, almost double the sustainable catch of 8,200. Actual catches were 9,895 in 2004 and 5,808 in 2005. [27] The 2004 White Sea TAC was 45,000. The catch was 22,474. [27]

Population Dynamics

Hunting has had a significant impact on the population size of Harp Seals. Over the past 150 years, the Harp Seal population has fluctuated from over 9 million to as little as 1 million. [29] As of 2016, the current population is estimated to be 7.4 million. [30] Hunting restrictions are now in place for these animals. [31] The Northwest Atlantic populations was found to have decreased by at least 50 percent from 1952 to 1970. [32] Populations have also been changing with respect to distribution and have been found to have invaded areas such as North Norway. [33] The Harp Seal invasions have been harming the area's fisheries. [34]

See also

Related Research Articles

Earless seal family of mammals

The earless seals, phocids or true seals are one of the three main groups of mammals within the seal lineage, Pinnipedia. All true seals are members of the family Phocidae. They are sometimes called crawling seals to distinguish them from the fur seals and sea lions of the family Otariidae. Seals live in the oceans of both hemispheres and, with the exception of the more tropical monk seals, are mostly confined to polar, subpolar, and temperate climates. The Baikal seal is the only species of exclusively freshwater seal.

Walrus Species of marine mammal

The walrus is a large flippered marine mammal with a discontinuous distribution about the North Pole in the Arctic Ocean and subarctic seas of the Northern Hemisphere. The walrus is the only living species in the family Odobenidae and genus Odobenus. This species is subdivided into two subspecies: the Atlantic walrus which lives in the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific walrus which lives in the Pacific Ocean.

Narwhal Medium-sized toothed whale that lives year-round in the Arctic

The narwhal, or narwhale, is a medium-sized toothed whale that possesses a large "tusk" from a protruding canine tooth. It lives year-round in the Arctic waters around Greenland, Canada, and Russia. It is one of two living species of whale in the family Monodontidae, along with the beluga whale. The narwhal males are distinguished by a long, straight, helical tusk, which is an elongated upper left canine. The narwhal was one of many species described by Carl Linnaeus in his publication Systema Naturae in 1758.

Pinniped Infraorder of mammals

Pinnipeds, commonly known as seals, are a widely distributed and diverse clade of carnivorous, fin-footed, semiaquatic marine mammals. They comprise the extant families Odobenidae, Otariidae, and Phocidae. There are 33 extant species of pinnipeds, and more than 50 extinct species have been described from fossils. While seals were historically thought to have descended from two ancestral lines, molecular evidence supports them as a monophyletic lineage. Pinnipeds belong to the order Carnivora and their closest living relatives are believed to be bears and the superfamily of musteloids, having diverged about 50 million years ago.

Ringed seal species of mammal

The ringed seal, also known as the jar seal, as netsik or nattiq by the Inuit, is an earless seal inhabiting the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. The ringed seal is a relatively small seal, rarely greater than 1.5 m in length, with a distinctive patterning of dark spots surrounded by light grey rings, hence its common name. It is the most abundant and wide-ranging ice seal in the Northern Hemisphere: ranging throughout the Arctic Ocean, into the Bering Sea and Okhotsk Sea as far south as the northern coast of Japan in the Pacific, and throughout the North Atlantic coasts of Greenland and Scandinavia as far south as Newfoundland, and include two freshwater subspecies in northern Europe. Ringed seals are one of the primary prey of polar bears and killer whales, and have long been a component of the diet of indigenous people of the Arctic.

Bearded seal species of mammal

The bearded seal, also called the square flipper seal, is a medium-sized pinniped that is found in and near to the Arctic Ocean. It gets its generic name from two Greek words that refer to its heavy jaw. The other part of its Linnaean name means bearded and refers to its most characteristic feature, the conspicuous and very abundant whiskers. When dry, these whiskers curl very elegantly, giving the bearded seal a "raffish" look.

Grey seal species of seal

The grey seal is found on both shores of the North Atlantic Ocean. It is a large seal of the family Phocidae which are commonly referred to as "true seals" or "earless seals". It is the only species classified in the genus Halichoerus. Its name is spelled gray seal in the US; it is also known as Atlantic seal and the horsehead seal.

Leopard seal Species of mammal

The leopard seal, also referred to as the sea leopard, is the second largest species of seal in the Antarctic. Its only natural predator is the killer whale. It feeds on a wide range of prey including cephalopods, other pinnipeds, krill, birds and fish. It is the only species in the genus Hydrurga. Its closest relatives are the Ross seal, the crabeater seal and the Weddell seal, which together are known as the tribe of Lobodontini seals. The name hydrurga means "water worker" and leptonyx is the Greek for "small clawed".

Hooded seal species of mammal

The hooded seal is a large phocid found only in the central and western North Atlantic, ranging from Svalbard in the east to the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the west. The seals are typically silver-grey or white in Color, with black spots that vary in size covering most of the body. Hooded seal pups are known as "blue-backs" because their coats are blue-grey on the back with whitish bellies, though this coat is shed after 14 months of age when the pups molt.

<i>Phoca</i> genus of mammals

Phoca is a genus of the earless seals, within the family Phocidae. It now contains just two species, the common seal and the spotted seal. Several species formerly listed under this genus have been split into the genera Pusa, Pagophilus, and Histriophoca. Until recently, Phoca largha has been considered a subspecies of Phoca vitulina but now is considered its own species. For this reason, the fossil history of the genus is unclear, and it has formerly been used as wastebasket taxon for a number of fossils of uncertain affinity.

Weddell seal species of mammal

The Weddell seal is a relatively large and abundant true seal with a circumpolar distribution surrounding Antarctica. The Weddell seal was discovered and named in the 1820s during expeditions led by British sealing captain James Weddell to the area of the Southern Ocean now known as the Weddell Sea. The life history of this species is well documented since it occupies fast ice environments close to the Antarctic continent and often adjacent to Antarctic bases.

Caspian seal species of mammal

The Caspian seal is one of the smallest members of the earless seal family and unique in that it is found exclusively in the brackish Caspian Sea. They are found not only along the shorelines, but also on the many rocky islands and floating blocks of ice that dot the Caspian Sea. In winter, and cooler parts of the spring and autumn season, these marine mammals populate the Northern Caspian. As the ice melts in the warmer season, they can be found on the mouths of the Volga and Ural Rivers, as well as the southern latitudes of the Caspian where cooler waters can be found due to greater depth.

Ribbon seal Species of mammal

The ribbon seal is a medium-sized pinniped from the true seal family (Phocidae). A seasonally ice-bound species, it is found in the Arctic and Subarctic regions of the North Pacific Ocean, notably in the Bering Sea and Sea of Okhotsk. It is distinguished by its striking coloration, with two wide white strips and two white circles against dark brown or black fur.

Spotted seal species of mammal

The spotted seal, also known as the larga seal or largha seal, is a member of the family Phocidae, and is considered a "true seal". It inhabits ice floes and waters of the north Pacific Ocean and adjacent seas. It is primarily found along the continental shelf of the Beaufort, Chukchi, Bering and Okhotsk Seas and south to the northern Yellow Sea and it migrates south as far as northern Huanghai and the western Sea of Japan. It is also found in Alaska from the southeastern Bristol Bay to Demarcation Point during the ice-free seasons of summer and autumn when spotted seals mate and have pups. Smaller numbers are found in the Beaufort Sea. It is sometimes mistaken for the harbor seal to which it is closely related and spotted seals and harbor seals often mingle together in areas where their habitats overlap.


A whitecoat is a newborn harp or grey seal with soft, white fur.

Although the bulk of its area is covered by ice caps inhospitable to most forms of life, Greenland's terrain and waters support a wide variety of plant and animal species. The northeastern part of the country is the world's largest national park. The flora and fauna of Greenland are strongly susceptible to changes associated with climate change.

Pagophily or pagophilia is the preference or dependence on water ice for some or all activities and functions. The term Pagophila is derived from the Ancient Greek pagos meaning "sea-ice", and philos meaning "-loving".

Harbor seal Species of mammal

The harborseal, also known as the common seal, is a true seal found along temperate and Arctic marine coastlines of the Northern Hemisphere. The most widely distributed species of pinniped, they are found in coastal waters of the northern Atlantic, Pacific Oceans, Baltic and North Seas.

Seal meat

Seal meat is the flesh, including the blubber and organs, of seals used as food for humans or other animals. It is prepared in numerous ways, often being hung and dried before consumption. Historically, it has been eaten in many parts of the world, both as a part of a normal diet, and as sustenance.


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Further reading

Paro, a medical robot pet based on the harp seal Paro robot.jpg
Paro, a medical robot pet based on the harp seal

The Northwest population:

The White Sea and West Ice populations: