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Harp seal

(Pagophilus groenlandicus, previously Phoca groenlandica)

Harp seal

Harp seal

Descrip­ti­on: Harp seals are rela­tively small seals, mea­su­ring 1.70 to 1.80 metres and weig­hing 120 to 140 kg. The fur pat­tern of the adults is main­ly sil­ve­rish grey, but has a lar­ge, dark spot across the back that loo­ks vague­ly simi­lar to a sadd­le, hence the name. This pat­tern is more stron­gly pro­noun­ced with males than femai­les. The head is also part­ly black.

Harp seal

Harp seal con­ve­ni­en­t­ly dis­play­ing the pat­tern on the back.

Harp seals are easi­ly iden­ti­fied by their beha­viour: in Spits­ber­gen waters, they are most­ly seen in lar­ger groups near the ice edge or wit­hin drift ice, often swim­ming in a very lively and play­ful way. Sightin­gs in fjords are rare.

Groups of Harp seals on drift ice

Groups of Harp seals spread out on loo­se drift ice off the sou­thwest coast of Spits­ber­gen, late June.

Dis­tri­bu­ti­on / Migra­ti­on: Harp seals can be found in the Arc­tic from New­found­land to West and East Green­land and into the Bar­ents sea, most­ly in the vicini­ty of drift ice.

Bio­lo­gy: Harp seals dive down to 200 metres and feed on a varie­ty of fish and crustace­ans. Mating occurs in Janu­a­ry and Febru­a­ry, but the fer­ti­li­zed egg is implan­ted after a delay of about 4 mon­ths in May or June. The pup, appro­xi­mate­ly 85 cm lar­ge, is born next Janu­a­ry or Febru­a­ry. It suck­les for only about 12 days, but gains about 2 kg weight per day during this peri­od. It will then spend ano­t­her 2 weeks on the ice, until its fur, ori­gi­nal­ly white, has chan­ged to a pat­tern with dark spots. The fur deve- lops the cha­rac­te­ris­tic „sadd­le“ pat­tern of the adults only after 7 (males) or 12 years (fema­les). Polar bears, Green­land sharks and Orcas are the Harp seal’s worst enemy; if they mana­ge to escape tho­se, then they may live for up to 35 years.

Groups of Harp seals on drift ice

Group of Harp seals on drift ice. Sou­thwest Spits­ber­gen, late May.

Mis­cel­la­ne­ous: The glo­bal Harp seal popu­la­ti­on, once num­be­ring many mil­li­ons, has been redu­ced dra­ma­ti­cal­ly throughout cen­tu­ries of indus­tri­al hun­ting, but is still esti­ma­ted around 7 mil­li­on. Several 100,000 are still taken each year, most of them in Cana­da.

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last modification: 2019-02-24 · copyright: Rolf Stange
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