Harp Seal (Phoca groenlandica)


Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora Suborder: Pinnipedia
Family:    Phocidae
Size:    Length: 6 to 7 feet (1.8 to 2.1 m)
Weight: 250 to 350 pounds (114 to 159 kg)
Diet: Fish, including halibut, redfish, capelin, cod and herring
Distribution: North Atlantic and Arctic oceans
Young:  1, sometimes twins
Animal Predators:  Killer whales, Greenland sharks, polar bears and walruses
IUCN Status: No special status
Terms: Male: Bull  Female: Cow  Young: Pup
Lifespan: Up to 35 years of age



·         Harp seals are also sometimes called saddlebacks.

·         There are 19 known species of true seals.

·         Harp seal populations have decreased by more than two-thirds since the 1960s.



Harp seals have silvery fur with black patches, and are named for the horseshoe, or harp-shaped pattern on their backs. The colour of the females is often broken up into spots. Usually, the colouration of the seals changes with age. They have whiskers—called vibrissae—which contribute to the seal’s sense of touch. 



Harp seals live in the open sea on the edge of the pack ice. They are dependent on the ice from breeding and moulting. They maintain natural holes 60 to 90 cm (24 to 35 inches) in diameter for purposes of access to water and breathing when underwater. During the breeding season, up to 40 seals may share a breathing hole. There are three separate populations of harp seals that breed in different areas. One group breeds in the White Sea of northern Russia, another in the Gulf of St. Lawrence off Newfoundland, and the third breeds on Jan Mayen Island off Greenland. 


Feeding Habits

Their diets are comprised mainly of fish, including halibut, redfish, capelin, cod and herring. Small crabs are the primary source of food for young seals after they have finished weaning. 



The reproductive season for harp seals is from the end of February to the end of March. The seals migrate south to breed. Females experience delayed implantation, which extends the pregnancy to 11.5 months. The pup is born on ice, with a yellowish fur that turns to pure white in a few days. Pups are called “whitecoats” because of their pure white, thick fur. The protective mother never leaves the pup while it is nursing, and so does not eat the entire time. The pups, approximately 20 pounds (9 kg) at birth, grow quickly, reaching over 50 pounds (22.6 kg) by the time they are weaned, 12 days after birth. The mother then mates with a male on the ice before feeding. The males anxiously await the females, putting on displays for them by calling and blowing bubbles in the water. It is believed that seals are monogamous for at least one season. Meanwhile, the pup remains on the ice for a further two weeks until it has moulted its baby fur and although the mother comes back to check on her pup, it is a dangerous time for it, because there are many predators. At one month, the pup begins to swim and can feed itself, mostly dining on shrimp. 



Harp seals are very outgoing and social, and hunt for fish together in groups. They come out of the water during breeding season and to moult. They are powerful swimmers and have even been seen leaping out of the water like dolphins during their annual migration south at the approach of winter. They move gracefully and quickly through water, but are slower and more awkward while on land. Harp seals moult from April to May, after breeding season. During that time, the seals congregate in herds of up to 10,000 individuals on the ice and eat little or nothing. When the moult is over they enter the water again and head north to their summer feeding grounds. They have excellent vision and hearing, although their sense of smell is not as keen. However, mothers can recognize their pups among a crowd on an ice floe by their scent. 



Tiny pups younger than 18 days were once eagerly sought for the fur trade because of their pure white coats, but in 1987 it became illegal in Canada to hunt the pups for commercial purposes. However, hunters may still kill pups for personal use and in 1997 it was reported that up to 20,000 young pups were killed in Canada and sold illegally.










Harp Seal Wildlife Fact File, IM Pub, US