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Harp Seal Fact File

Pagophilus groenlandicus

Credit: Lysogeny, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Weight

130kg

(290lbs)

Length

1.7-1.9m

(5.5-6.25ft)

Lifespan

Wild 16-30 years

Captive 16-30 years

Diet

Carnivore

Fish

Conservation Status

IUCN

Least Concern

The harp seal is named for the black, harp-shaped marking which is seen across the back. It has also given rise to their alternative name of saddleback seal.

They are carnivores who spend most of their year out at sea looking for prey including fish and crustaceans.

At birth young are recognizable for their coat of fluffy white fur which helps to camouflage with the pack ice on which the females give birth. This also provides warmth against the cold environment.

They are threatened by climate change, bycatch in fisheries, oil spills and disease.

Read on to learn more about these magnificent mammals.

Appearance

What does the harp seal look like?

Across the body of the harp seal they have a short coat of silver-grey fur. Their name is taken from the large, black, harp-shaped marking which runs across most of the back.

As a true seal these animals do not have an external ear flap.

On the fore-flippers are black claws. On the back feet they have smaller claws.

These animals have whiskers on either side of the face which are used to sense their surroundings.

An average harp seal will measure 1.7-1.9m (5.5-6.26ft) long with a weight of 130kg (290lbs).

Diet

What does the harp seal eat?


Harp seals are carnivores. They will feed on fish such as cod and capelin. Some crustaceans may also be consumed. When young they may feed on krill.

Harp Seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus)

Credit: Lysogeny, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Range

Where can you find the harp seal?

The harp seal is found on ice floes in the following countries – Canada; Greenland; Iceland; Norway; Russia; Svalbard and Jan Mayen. Much of their time is spent in the oceans around these countries.

Occasional vagrants are recorded from the following countries – Denmark; Faroe Islands; Finland; France; Germany; Spain; United Kingdom and the United States.

They are the most abundant seal species in the northern hemisphere.

Habitat

What kind of environment does the harp seal live in?

This animal is primarily aquatic spending most of its time at sea. They will come ashore on ice floes during the breeding season.

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Reproduction

How does the harp seal produce its young?

Pairs will perform their courtship on the land and then mate while at sea. Males and females may mate with multiple partners during the breeding season.

Males will fight one another during the breeding season by biting and beating one another. The winner becomes dominant in his territory and will have mating rights with the females.


Young will be born from February to March. During pupping season they will gather in large numbers on ice floes to give birth. At birth the young have yellow fur which will whiten as they grow. Their yellow coat has led to the pups being nicknamed 'yellowcoat.' This thick fur helps to keep them warm on ice.


The white coat also serves as camouflage helping to stop detection of the pups by predators.


At birth the pups have no blubber and rely on their mother's attention to keep them safe. Her milk is half fat causing them to quickly gain weight.


A single pup is produced each year. Mother's only nurse their pups for 12 days. Following this they still cannot feed themselves and rely on fat reserves they have built up. During this time they can lose up to 50% of their body weight.

On their return the mother can notice her pup by its scent and will reject any other pup which approaches her.

The average mortality rate within the first year of life is 20-30%.


Sexual maturity is reached at five years old.

Behavior

What does the harp seal do with its day?

The harp seal will migrate with the movements in the pack ice so that they remain close to their food source.

While searching for food they will dive to depths of up to 200m (666ft). They may remain underwater for up to 16 minutes before needing to surface for a breath.

Outside of the breeding season these animals spend almost all of their time in the water.

On land these animals move in a caterpillar like motion.

Every spring the adults will molt their fur. This follows the breeding season and at the end of this they will return to the seas to feed.

Harp Seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus)

Credit: Virginia State Parks staff, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Predators and Threats

What is impacting the survival of the harp seal?

Juveniles face predation from polar bears, walruses, wolves and Arctic foxes. Adults mainly face predation in the sea from orcas and large sharks.

Populations of the harp seal have been increasing following a significant decline due to hunting. They have now been restored to being the most common species of pinniped in North America.

The total mature population is estimated at 4.5 million individuals.

These animals have been subject to hunting for thousands of years but it reached highs in recent decades which caused sharp declines. Following this being realized and the population offered protection it has begun to increase.

They are also subject to bycatch as parts of fisheries. Fisheries impact them through the removal of their food source. Declines in krill numbers have been linked to a decline in pup survival.

Other threats include oil spills, disease and climate change.

Quick facts

Their name is taken from the dark, harp-like marking which is seen on the back of adults.

These animals may also be known as the saddleback seal.

Their scientific name, Pagophilus groenlandicus, roughly translates as "ice-lover from Greenland"

Harp Seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus)

Credit: Virginia State Parks staff, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

References

Burnie, D., 2011. Animal. 3rd ed. London: DK

Jackson, T. and Chinery, M., 2012. The illustrated encyclopedia of animals of the world. London: Southwater.

Canadian Geographic. 2021. Animal Facts: Harp seal. [online] Available at: <https://www.canadiangeographic.ca/article/animal-facts-harp-seal> [Accessed 30 December 2021].

2021. Harp Seal. [online] Available at: <https://oceanwide-expeditions.com/to-do/wildlife/harp-seal> [Accessed 30 December 2021].

NOAA. 2021. Harp Seal. [online] Available at: <https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/harp-seal> [Accessed 30 December 2021].

Oceana. 2021. Harp Seal. [online] Available at: <https://oceana.org/marine-life/harp-seal/> [Accessed 30 December 2021].

Pinnipeds.org. 2021. Harp Seal. [online] Available at: <https://www.pinnipeds.org/seal-information/species-information-pages/the-phocid-seals/harp-seal> [Accessed 30 December 2021].

Ocean Conservancy. 2021. Harp Seal – Ocean Conservancy. [online] Available at: <https://oceanconservancy.org/wildlife-factsheet/harp-seal/> [Accessed 30 December 2021].

2021. Harp Seals. [online] Available at: <https://www.marinebio.org/species/harp-seals/pagophilus-groenlandicus/> [Accessed 30 December 2021].

Kovacs, K.M. 2015. Pagophilus groenlandicusThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e.T41671A45231087. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2015-4.RLTS.T41671A45231087.en. Accessed on 30 December 2021.

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