Bearded Seal

Bearded Seal

Square flipper seal, Ugruk, Phoque Barbu

Erignathus barbatus
Life Span
31 years
kg lbs 
m ft 

Bearded seals (Erignathus barbatus) are known as ‘ice seals’. They are members of a group of four Arctic seal species that live in Alaskan waters and use sea ice for feeding, resting, and pupping. Bearded seals get their generic name from two Greek words (eri and gnathos) that refer to their heavy jaws. The other part of their Linnaean name means bearded and refers to their conspicuous and very abundant whiskers. When dry, these whiskers curl very elegantly, giving Bearded seals a "raffish" look.


Distinguishing features of this earless seal include square fore flippers and thick bristles on its muzzle. Adults are greyish-brown in color, darker on the back; rarely with a few faint spots on the back or dark spots on the sides. Occasionally the face and neck are reddish brown. Bearded seal pups are born with greyish-brown natal fur with scattered patches of white on the back and head. The female of this species is larger than the male.



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 Seal habitat map

Climate zones

Bearded Seal habitat map
Bearded Seal
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Habits and Lifestyle

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.

Seasonal behavior

Diet and Nutrition

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.

Mating Habits

11 months
1 pup
18-24 days

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.


Population threats

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.

Population number

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.

Ecological niche

Bearded seals are important predators of benthic mollusks, crustaceans, fish, and octopi. They are serve as prey to polar, killer whales and walruses.

Fun Facts for Kids

  • When Bearded seals rest on ice flows, their heads face downwards into the water, in order to escape quickly into the sea if a predator pursues them.
  • Bearded seals will sometimes sleep in open water, in a vertical position, with their heads above the surface.
  • A male Bearded seal’s song is able to be heard 20 km (12.4 mi) away.
  • Bearded seals ram their heads through ice that is thin to produce a breathing hole.
  • Pups are able to dive to 61 meter (200 feet) at just one week old.
  • Fossils first described in 2002 indicated that, during the Pleistocene epoch, bearded seals ranged as far south as South Carolina.


1. Bearded Seal Wikipedia article -
2. Bearded Seal on The IUCN Red List site -

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