The name of this seal originates from the prominent rows of long, pale, spiralling whiskers on its snout, which create the impression of a beard.
The bearded seals are solitary by nature and are most likely to be encountered amongst broken areas of ice, moving further north in summer as it melts. They live in the shallow water of the Arctic Ocean. They do come on to gravel beaches on islands and the northern coastlines of Eurasia and North America at times. They have even been seen on the coast of Scotland. However, bearded seals prefer areas covered in broken ice. They haul themselves on to the floes for a rest and then dive between the broken ice to feed. They also ram their heads through thin ice to create breathing holes for use while feeding.
Bearded seals find a lot of their food on the sea bed. Their highly sensitive whiskers detect the tiny water currents produced by the movements of their prey, which include crustaceans such as shrimp and crabs, shellfish such as clams and abalone, and fish.
The seals come together in large numbers only during the breeding season. The males sing a warbling song while underwater to attract the pregnant females to their floes. The calves that were conceived the previous years are then born on the ice. Like all seals, the mothers can only spare a few days to suckle their calves and feed them very fatty milk. After the calves are weaned, the females mate with the male in control of the floe. The resulting embryos lie dormant for several weeks before beginning to develop inside the mothers. This ensures that they are ready to be born during the next year’s breeding season.
Bearded seals are named after the long white whiskers that grow on the snout. For at least part of the year they have very thick blubber, making the body rounded.
There are now widespread concerns for their future as the Arctic seas warm up, although they will also emerge on to land. Bearded seals favour relatively shallow waters, down to depths of about 130 m (427 ft), seeking their food at or near the bottom.
Distribution: Occurs in the North Atlantic, the western Laptev and Barents seas, and in the rest of the Arctic Sea. Also found in the Bering and Okhotsk seas.
Habitat: Shallow water covered in thin ice.
Weight: 200 - 360 kg (440 - 794 lb); females are slightly heavier.
Length: 210 - 240 cm (83 - 94 in).
Maturity: Females at 3 years; males at 6 years but may take several more years before breeding successfully.
Gestation Period: 248 - 279 days; embryonic development only starts 2 - 3 months after fertilization.
Breeding: 1; weaning occurs by 18 days. Breeding season takes place in summer on beaches and ice floes.
Diet: Piscivorous, hunting fish including sculpin and cod, crustaceans such as crabs, and molluscs including clams.
Lifespan: 25 - 30 years.
Although somewhat cumbersome on land, the seal’s streamlined shape helps it to swim well.
The head is rectangular in shape and quite small compared with the size of the body.
A dense layer of underfur and protective blubber provide insulation against the ice.
Dark, typically varying from grey to brown depending on the population, with no patterning.
As mammals, bearded seals must be able to breathe air. They can create breathing holes in areas of solid ice.
OUT OF THE WATER
Bearded seals rest on drifting ice floes, and females give birth here too.