Bearded seals are known as ‘ice seals,’ being members of a group of four Arctic seal species that live in Alaskan waters and use sea ice for feeding, and when resting, and pupping. Bearded seals are the biggest of all Arctic seals. Their extremely elaborate, long whiskers (or vibrissae) that curl when dry, give them their name. These seals, like all true seals, have small ear holes, and their short, backward-pointing rear flippers are used to propel themselves effortlessly through water. Adult males and females are about the same in size and color, however, unlike other true seals, their pups are dark in color instead of white.
The Bearded seal inhabits the Arctic waters of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Two subspecies are recognized: the Atlantic bearded seal, which occurs from the eastern Canadian Arctic across the North Atlantic as far as the Laptev Sea, off Russia’s coast, and the Pacific bearded seal, which inhabits the central Canadian Arctic to the Laptev Sea. Drifting pack ice is their preferred habitat, in areas above shallow water shelves.
Bearded seals live solitary lives, even in high densities, keeping their distance from each other except when breeding. Typically there is one individual or fewer per ice floe. These animals are territorial during the mating season and fast-ice seasons, when each of them hauls out on a separate ice floe, facing the water as they do so, in order to watch for predators. This species is diurnal, and individuals spend most of their time foraging in the shallow coastal north Atlantic seas. During the breeding season, these animals are more localized and will spend more of their time on pack ice. Males sing in what is thought to be a territorial warning and/or a courtship routine during the breeding season. Sometimes males will fight over a female.
Bearded seals are carnivores (piscivores and molluscivores), they mainly eat local crustaceans and mollusks, and also Arctic cod. They sometimes eat benthic fishes like flatfishes and sculpins, and also American Plaice.
Bearded seals are polygynandrous (or promiscuous), both males and females having more than one mate in one breeding season. Males leave the females after mating, and do not help to care for the pups. From March and June, the males perform elaborate vocalizations underwater to attract females or compete with other males. Females do not bear their pups until the following summer, as a result of delayed implantation and a lengthy gestation period of 11 months, during which females gain weight in order to build up their milk supply. They bear a single pup between mid-March and May, on pack ice. Pups enter the water within several days. Weaning takes place after 18 to 24 days, with pups weaned by the late summer, having ample time to develop blubber before winter. Females are sexually mature at 3 to 8 years old and males at the age of 6 to 7.
For thousands of years, man has hunted the Bearded seal, for food and for the durable quality of its skin, which is used for boats, lines and clothing. Commercial harvests of the Bearded have ceased, but subsistence hunting continues in the United States, Canada, Greenland and Russia. The greatest threat to this species may come from global climate change, as the Bearded seal is dependent on sea ice for breeding. Other threats include oil spills, human-created noise and pollutants found in the ocean.
The NOAA Fisheries resource states that there is no accurate population count of Bearded seals at this time, but the estimation is for over 500,000 seals worldwide. According to the IUCN Red List, the global population size of Bearded seals is unknown, however, there are estimates of the Pacific bearded seal subspecies in specific areas: Okhotsk Sea - 95,000 seals; Alaskan Chukchi Sea - 27,000 seals; Bering Sea - 125,000 seals. It is likely that the number of Pacific bearded seals in the Okhotsk Sea and the Bering Sea is at least 250,000. Overall, Bearded seals are classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List.
Bearded seals are important predators of benthic mollusks, crustaceans, fish, and octopi. They are serve as prey to polar, killer whales and walruses.