The Australian fur seal is the fourth-rarest seal species in the world. Hunted to near extinction last century, recovery of numbers has been slow, and this species is now wholly protected. These seals are easily recognizable by their thick coats, pointed faces and long whiskers, and their powerful front flippers upon which they can stand. Their hind fins are mainly used for steering when in water, although they can also be turned around and used to walk on land. Females are a variety of colors from soft tan to gray to brown. Underneath the female’s neck, the color is pale almost yellowish, and her fur at the front is normally brown. These seals have a call that sounds something like a cow mooing (the adults), or a bleating lamb (pups).
The Australian fur seal inhabits south-eastern Australia, from the locality of Port Stephens to islands off the coast of Tasmania and in the Bass Strait, with one colony on the Tasmanian mainland. These animals prefer coastal waters, breeding on small isolated rocks within the Bass Strait. They also haul out around the Tasmanian coastline in various rocky areas.
Australian fur seals are diurnal, being active during the daytime and sleeping at night. They live in colonies, which typically number 500-1500 individuals. They are a social species that use vocalizations in a wide range of contexts, this being particularly important for mothers and pups to reunite after mothers have been foraging out at sea, sometimes for days. For a mother to locate her pup on return, she makes a loud call, whereupon all the pups approach her but she responds to only her pup. She probably uses smell to distinguish her pup. When their mothers are absent, pups stay in groups and will play during the evenings. These seals do not migrate and never fully leave the rookeries, as mothers and pups return throughout the year. However, for most of the year, they are at sea, often traveling in small feeding groups. The colonies have no true boundaries between them, as the animals all travel separately during the year until breeding season.
This species is polygynous, males mating with as many as 50 females in a year. Males arrive first at the rookeries or breeding grounds around October, in early spring, and fight with other males, then stake out a territory. Females arrive several weeks later to bear their pups. Gestation is for about 11 months and a single pup is born. Mothers often leave their babies on shore for several days while they forage in the ocean, returning now and again to feed their babies for 4 to 6 months. After only 6 to 10 days following birthing, they will breed again, to have another baby in a year’s time. Females are sexually mature at the age of 3 to 6 years and males probably between the age of four and five but cannot maintain a harem until about the age of seven or eight.
Australian fur seals are heavily poached, mostly by fishermen and large fishing businesses that believe that seals steal their livelihood from their nets. People are a further threat through pollution, with plastic, pieces of fishing line and pieces of netting killing or injuring thousands of them every year.
According to the IUCN Red List, the total Australian fur seal population size is around 120,000 individuals. Currently this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) and its numbers today are increasing.
Australian fur seals are key predators of krill and various species of fish, squid, and crab.