The bearded seal is one of four Arctic seal species that resides in and around the Arctic Ocean, as well as the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas in Alaska. As members of the “true seal” family, the bearded seal is closely related to the gray seal and harp seal. Thick, white whiskers along the snout resemble a “beard,” giving this pinniped its common name.
The bearded seal is the largest of all Arctic seals, growing to lengths of up to eight feet and weighing 575-800 pounds. These seals tend to weigh the most during winter and early spring when they have an extra layer of blubber under the skin. Sea ice is an important part of the bearded seal’s daily life. Ice floes are used for resting on between foraging for food and during pupping season. Individuals know to rest on single ice floes facing the water so they can escape quickly from predators. Bearded seals are benthic feeders, meaning they forage near the sea floor for a variety of bottom-dwelling invertebrates, including crab, shrimp, clams, Arctic cod and octopus. Bearded seals typically dive to depths of less than 100 meters (328 feet) for food.
Scientists are still learning the mating and breeding rituals of bearded seals. Females are thought to reach sexual maturity at around four to six years and males at six or seven. Breeding occurs each year in late May or early June immediately after the previous pup has been weaned from the mother. Females can only give birth to one pup each year. Pups are born on pack ice or seasonal ice floes with a soft gray-brown, insulating coat called a lanugo that is shed once the pup can build its own fat reserves. Large pups may be able to swim within hours of birth, but most pups are not weaned from the mother’s nutrient-rich milk until 24 days. Besides mother and pup pairs, bearded seals are solitary animals that spend their day basking on sea ice. However, bearded seals are known to be extremely vocal—male’s songs used to defend territories or attract females can be heard for 12 miles!
Bearded seals are listed as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List, however due to the sensitive habitat in which they live, these seals will most likely be impacted by climate change and loss of sea ice. Bearded seals are dependent on sea ice for many of their daily habits, including pupping and resting. Potential oil spills from offshore oil development also pose risks to this species.