Cold temperate to polar latitudes of the northern hemisphere
Nest on the ice surface; feed at the ice edge
Order Pinnipedia (seals, sea lions, and relatives), Family Phocidae (true seals)
The ringed seal is a true seal, named for the silver rings that form on its otherwise dark coat. This seal is smaller than most others and reaches lengths of only approximately 5 feet (1.5 m) and weights of 110-150 pounds (50-70 kg). It is the smallest seal species in the Arctic but is also the most common species of seal in that region.
Ringed seals live most of their lives associated with Arctic sea ice. They hunt under the ice for schooling fishes (particularly the Polar Cod) and pelagic invertebrates. In addition to taking advantage of natural cracks or gaps in the ice cover, ringed seals are able to cut and maintain breathing holes, furthering their ability to both hunt and avoid predation under the ice. They also mate and pup on the ice surface. Pups are born into shelters that the females build into the snow. These shelters serve the dual purpose of providing insulation from the cold, harsh weather and protection from hunting polar bears, the ringed seal's primary predator. Though polar bears can hunt with their sense of smell and can easily destroy a shelter once a pup has been discovered, the shelter at least prevents the pups from being easily seen. Mothers are known to move their pups among several shelters in order to decrease the smell and therefore the likelihood that they will be discovered.
There are several recognized subspecies of ringed seals, and some of these are in better shape than others. Scientists generally believe that the species, as a whole, is one of least concern, but several subspecies are considered to be threatened or endangered (highly vulnerable to extinction). In the U.S., this species receives complete legal protection by way of being a marine mammal. Though artisanal hunting of the ringed seal still occurs throughout its range, commercial hunting has not occurred for several decades. Current threats to ringed seals include pollution and climate change. As a result of northern hemisphere wind patterns that carry pollution to the Arctic from primary industrial centers in North America and in Europe, the Arctic is surprisingly highly polluted. This pollution often affects species near the top of the food chain, including ringed seals. A more direct threat is the ongoing change to Arctic sea ice. Ringed Seals rely on sea ice for mating, pupping, and feeding. Scientists do not yet fully understand how changing sea ice patterns will affect the ringed seal and other Antarctic ice seals but fear that it could have a significant, negative impact.
Oceana joined forces with Sailors for the Sea, an ocean conservation organization dedicated to educating and engaging the world’s boating community. Sailors for the Sea developed the KELP (Kids Environmental Lesson Plans) program to create the next generation of ocean stewards. Click here or below to download hands-on marine science activities for kids.