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Harp Seal (Phoeca groenlandica - Pagophilus groenlandicus)

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Harp Seal Pup - Phoca groenlandica Picture

Harp Seal Pup (Phoca groenlandica)

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Description:

Harp seals are ice-loving pinnipeds that live in the Arctic and North Atlantic oceans. Harp seals are fuzzy white when born, but their coat gradually changes as they mature, turning into a silvery gray with a darker harp-shaped pattern on the adult's back and sides.

Harp seals grow to about 6.5 feet in length and 287 pounds in weight.

Harp seals are often in the news due to the controversial seal hunts that occur, primarily in Canada. While the species is relatively abundant, animal rights activists consider the hunts cruel and unnecessary and have been working for years to ban them.

Classification:

Harp seals are known by two scientific names, Pagophilus groenlandicus and Phoca groenlandica.
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Carnivora
  • Family: Phocidae
  • Genus and Species: Phoca groenlandica or Pagophilus groenlandicus

Feeding:

Harp seals eat smaller fish such as capelin, cod, herring, sculpin, halibut, redfish and plaice. They also dine on crustaceans (such as krill and shrimp). According to the NOAA Fisheries, these seals like variety - over 65 species of finfish and 70 species of invertebrates have been found in their stomachs! Their predators include humans, polar bears, killer whales, sharks and walruses.

Migration and Reproduction:

Harp seals are migratory, gathering to breed on pack ice in the winter and early spring, and then dispersing to feed in cold arctic and subarctic waters in the warmer summer and autumn months.

After about an 11.5 month gestation period, 3-foot long, 25-pound harp seal pups are born in February to April. The pup nurses for about 12 days, and then is weaned, where it stays on the ice for about 2 more weeks before it starts to swim and feed on its own.

The pups are born with yellowish fur, which turns white after a couple of days. After 2-4 weeks, the pup molts this white fur and grows a silvery gray coat with dark spots, which eventually turns into an adult coat which is silvery gray with the characteristic darker "harp" shape. Adult males have a black head.

The harp seal's lifespan is thought to be 30-35 years.

Distribution:

Harp seals live from Newfoundland to northern Russia, and are found on pack ice throughout the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans.

There are three separate stocks of harp seals. The largest is off eastern Canada, with one herd off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, and another in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The other two stocks are located off eastern Greenland and in the White Sea off the coast of Russia.

Status:

The harp seal is listed as of "least concern" on the IUCN Red List due to its large population. The IUCN cautions, however, that this species is threatened by climate change due to its dependence on pack ice.

While harp seal populations overall are increasing, there is continued controversy over seal hunts, especially in Canada. Harp seals are hunted for their fur, meat, oil and for the male's genitals, which are marketed in Asia as aphrodisiacs.

Sources:

  • Waller, G., ed. SeaLife: A Complete Guide to the Marine Environment. Smithsonian Institution Press. Washington, D.C. 1996.
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