Restricted to the Juan Fernandez Islands and other islands off the coast of Chile
Nest on rocky shores; feed on rocky and coral reefs and nearby cold-water currents
Order Pinnipedia (seals, sea lions, and relatives), Family Otariidae (fur seals)
The Juan Fernandez fur seal is the largest predator on coral and rocky reefs of the Juan Fernandez Islands and other islands off the coast of Chile. Like all seals, the Juan Fernandez fur seal feeds in the ocean but mates, gives birth to its pups, and rests on land.
Its preferred pupping areas include rocky shores and lava flows. This species is not a true seal and is instead closely related to sea lions and other fur seals (together known as the “eared seals”).
The Juan Fernandez fur seal is a generalist predator that feeds mostly on shallow reefs near the shore, though it may swim out to coldwater currents to feed during some parts of the year. It is known to eat fishes, squids, and octopuses. The Juan Fernandez fur seal is a playful species, and it often approaches SCUBA divers to investigate them, play in the bubbles, or tug at the fins. This species has no natural predators on land and is the largest predator on its local reefs, so its natural populations are regulated mostly by competition for food resources and space.
Like all fur seals, the Juan Fernandez fur seal was at one time hunted enthusiastically by people for the fur trade. Fur seals have dense coats of nearly waterproof fur that is highly desirable for making coats and other garments, and their lack of predators on land make them an easy target for human hunters who can approach them with little effort. Pre-hunting estimates of their population size are more than four million individuals. By the late 1970s, the population was depleted by millions. By the late 1800s, Juan Fernandez fur seals were no longer observed in traditional areas and were assumed to be extinct. Fortunately, the Juan Fernandez fur seal’s story is one of success (albeit only after the collapse of the fur seal pelt trade). In the 1960s, some individuals were discovered at remote locations and after being given complete legal protection by the Chilean government, populations have rebounded. In the 50 years since their rediscovery, Juan Fernandez fur seal numbers have reached several thousand. That is a far cry from the more than four million alive before hunting, but the population continues to increase, and the species is no longer considered threatened with extinction. However, after going through an extreme genetic bottleneck (where only a very few individuals give rise to the entire new population), the species could be threatened by a disease or other natural cause that is dangerous for every individual. Therefore, it is important for scientists to continue to study this species and continue to learn how it recovered from near extinction and how it thrives today.