Bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus)

French: Phoque Barbu
Spanish: Foca Barbuda
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderCarnivora
FamilyPhocidae
GenusErignathus (1)
SizeAdult length: 2 - 2.6 m (2)
Adult weight: 200 – 360 kg (2)

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The largest of the Arctic phocids (the true seals) (3) (4), the bearded seal is typically light to dark grey, with a darker streak running down the middle of the back, and a reddish-brown face and fore flippers. However, colouration is highly variable and some individuals may be differing shades of brown (4). Like all true seals, this species has small ear holes and short, backward-pointing hind flippers that are used to propel itself effortlessly through the water (5). Adult male and female bearded seals are roughly the same size and colour (3) (4), while, unlike other true seals that give birth to white pups, the pups of this species are dark in colour (6).

The first part of the bearded seal’s scientific name, Erignathus, is Greek and refers to the animal’s deep jaw. The latter part, barbatus, is Latin and refers to its elaborate, long and numerous mustachial whiskers, a feature that gave rise to its common name, the bearded seal (4).

The bearded seal is found in the Arctic waters of both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans (4). There are two recognised subspecies of the bearded seal: Erignathus barbatus barbatus is found from the eastern Canadian Arctic eastwards across the North Atlantic to the Laptev Sea, off the coast of Russia, while the subspecies Erignathus barbatus nauticus is present from the central Canadian Arctic west to the Laptev Sea (3).

The bearded seal maintains a close association with ice throughout its life. It mates underwater, but gives birth on the drifting ice floes and on the edges of pack-ice (6) (7). It is dependent on easy access to water and stays in relatively shallow areas (4).

The bearded seal tends to be a solitary animal; the only exceptions being mothers with their pups and breeding pairs (4). Between March and June, male bearded seals perform elaborate underwater vocalizations in order to attract females or to compete with other males (3) (7). While some males are territorial, defending small territories in which to display to females, other males are roaming, and will wander over large areas in search for females (8). Every other year (4), female bearded seals give birth on ice floes and the edges of pack-ice from mid-April to mid-May (7). The pups are able to enter the water and swim within hours of their birth, but feed on the mother’s milk until around 24 days old (7), when they are subsequently left to fend for themselves (4). The high fat content of the milk (up to 50 percent) enables the rapid growth of the young pups (6) (9). Pups have been seen engaging in play, such as tail-chasing, rolling, and mock fighting with the fore-flippers (4). Male bearded seals mature at around six or seven years of age, whereas females mature at around five or six years, and the bearded seal can live for up to 30 years (4).

The bearded seal makes and maintains breathing holes in the ice, staying close to the hole when resting on the ice so that it can make a quick escape in to the water if disturbed (4). Feeding mainly from the sea bed, the bearded seal’s diet consists of crabs, shrimps, clams, whelks, arctic cod and flounder. The major predators of bearded seals are polar bears and man (2) (4) (10).

The bearded seal has been hunted by man for thousands of years, as a source of food and for its durable skin which is used in boats, lines and clothing (4). While commercial harvests of this species, which probably depleted certain populations, have ceased, subsistence hunting continues in Canada, the United States, Greenland and Russia (1). However, the numbers of seals taken in these subsistence harvests are not clear (1).

Oil spills can affect bearded seal populations, either through direct contact or by reducing the availability of prey, and human-created noise could be negatively impacting the bearded seal during the breeding season when males are vocal (1). In addition, the bearded seal may be affected by pollutants found in the ocean; pesticides, such as DDT, and heavy metals have been found to be present in the tissues of bearded seals (4).

However, the greatest threat to this species may come from global climate change. As the bearded seal is dependent on sea ice for breeding, it is likely to be adversely affected by the predicted reduction in sea ice coverage as a result of global warming (1).

No significant declines in bearded seal populations have been observed over the past 30 years and so this species is not currently considered to be at risk of extinction (1). However, due to the significant potential threat posed by global warming, monitoring of bearded seal populations has been strongly encouraged for the future, with a reassessment of this species’ status to be undertaken within ten years (1).

To find out more about the conservation of seals see:

For information on conservation in the Arctic see:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (April, 2010)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. Nowak, R.M. (1999) Walker’s Mammals of the World. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland.
  3. Risch, D., Clark, C.W., Corkeron, P.J., Elepfandt, A., Kovacs, K.M., Lyderson, C., Stirling, I. and Van Parijs, S.M. (2007) Vocalizations of male bearded seals, Erignathus barbatus: classification and geographical variation. Animal Behaviour, 73: 747-762. 
  4. Ridgway, S.H. and Harrison, R.J. (1981) Handbook of Marine Mammals. Volume 2: Seals. Academic Press, London.
  5. Levinton, J.S. (2001) Marine Biology Function, Biodiversity, Ecology. Oxford University Press Inc, New York.
  6. Irving, L. (1972) Arctic Life of Birds and Mammals including Man. Springer-Verlag, Berlin.
  7. Van Parijs, S.M., Lyderson, C. and Kovacs, K.M. (2004) Effects of ice cover on the behavioural patterns of aquatic-mating male bearded seals. Animal Behaviour, 68: 89-96.
  8. Van Parijs, S.M. and Clark, C.W. (2006) Long-term mating tactics in an aquatic-mating pinniped, the bearded seal, Erignathus barbatus. Animal Behaviour, 72: 1269-1277.
  9. Urashima, T., Nakamura, T., Nakagawa, D., Noda, M., Arai, I., Saito, T., Lyderson, C. and Kovacs, K.M. (2004) Characterization of oligosaccharides in milk of bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus). Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology B, 138: 1-18.
  10. Hamilton, T., Seagars, D., Jokela, T. and Layton, D. (2008) 137Cs and 210Po in Pacific walrus and bearded seal from St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 56: 1158-1167.