Spotting A Seal Pup – A Treat Like Christmas
We’ve blogged about seals before but it seems there is always a bit more to say and seal pupping season comes round each year just like Christmas with snowy white seal pup and shingle swells.
Earlier this year too we had the treat of Wally the Walrus turning up in south Pembrokeshire so the seal and sealion family deserves some attention and now seems like the most appropriate time.
In Praise of Pinnipeds
The seal and sealion families along with the walruses are truly amazing. Altogether they are called pinnipeds by scientists.
The name means fin-footed, no prizes for guessing why they were awarded such a name. To me, they are dogs on the way to becoming dolphins, but they may have found an evolutionary niche that suits them for a very long time. Just as frogs and newts and land crabs must return to water to spawn, so pinnipeds and sea turtles must return to their former home, the land, to deposit their young.
Seals ears are virtually invisible and they waddle or belly hop along. Sealions have small but visible ears and can stand up on their flippers and walk or run but they are not found in British or north Atlantic waters. Walruses can stand up on their flippers like sealions but there are plenty of other ways to recognise them.
Here are my 5 favourite pinniped facts
- The largest pinniped of all is the southern elephant seal. We think of them as remote and a bit exotic but Britain has an obligation to them as they breed on the UK dependencies such as South Georgia and the Falkland Islands. Growing well over 5 metres long and weighing over 3000kg they are heavier than giraffes and of similar size and weight to white rhinos. According to my Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats the largest elephant seal on record was a South Georgia specimen nick-named Stalin. Males can be 5 times heavier than females.
- Fur seals are not seals but 5 species of sealion with thick fur
- Northern fur seals comprise the largest concentration of mammals in the world in the Pribilof Islands off the Alaskan coast. They peaked at over 2.5 million individuals in the 1950s.
- Crab eater seals are the most abundant seals in Antarctic waters and the World’s most abundant pinnipeds, estimated to number over 10 million individuals, but they hardly ever eat crabs. They feed almost exclusively on krill.
- Seals have sea in their name but the Baikal Seal lives over 1000 miles from the sea on the shores of Lake Baikal.
Seals around Britain
Common seals (Phoca vitulina)
The Common seals (Phoca vitulina) which breed here in Britain are well on the way to a completely aquatic existence as the pups are born between high tides and swim almost straight away as the tide comes in, but sometimes they are even born in the water. Common seals are small, with large ones measuring about 1.8 metres from nose to flipper-tips. They are common around Scotland, much of the east coast of England and northern Ireland but elsewhere in the British Isles they would be better named the uncommon seal. Globally though, they are the most widespread pinniped species. They breed in June and July and, in order to swim straight away, the pups shed their puppy coats just before or after birth so they look like miniature adults.
Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus)
Our other breeding pinniped is the grey seal (Halichoerus grypus). It is big reaching over 2 metres from nose to flipper tips. Grey seal pups are born in late summer or, more often, early autumn. They usually have white or ivory coloured fluffy baby coats (called lanugo) but sometimes black or mottled ones show up. The lanugo is the seal’s equivalent of the downy hair seen on new-born human babies and foetuses which goes by the same name. Within 3 weeks of birth they will shed the Lanugo (or ‘whitecoat’) to reveal a bluish grey coat which was prized by fur traders as (no prizes for guessing again)… the ‘bluecoat’.
A Comparison of Common and Grey Seals
Size isn’t always obvious over distance or in the sea and, in some places both species can be seen together so the following table might help distinguish them. The best clues are in bold text
|Common Seal Male||Common Seal Female||Grey seal Male (Bull)||Grey seal female (Cow)|
|Nostrils||Close together at the bottom or forward end forming a V shape||Similar to the male||Separate and almost parallel||Similar to the male|
|Head profile||Short (puppy-like) and forehead is concave like a dog’s||Similar to the male||Long and the forehead and snout are convex like a ‘roman-nose’||Forehead and snout are flat like a fresian cow|
|Build||Slightly larger and bulkier than female (especially in the neck area which may be scarred)||Typical seal shape!||Bulky neck and shoulders (often covered in scars)||Slimmer neck and much smaller body than the male but may be very plump in the pupping season|
|Colour||Very variable. Darker than female||Very variable but often spotty rather than blotchy||Very variable but often plainer (less spotty) and more brown than female greys or common seals||Spots tend to be larger and less numerous than on common seals with a more noticeable difference between back and belly|
|Front flippers||Short even claws||Short even claws||Long slim claws||Long slim claws|
|Pup||Like miniature adult||Like miniature adult||Usually white or ivory moulting into a blueish silvery black spotted coat after about 2 to 3 weeks||Same as male but black or blotchy pups may occur in both sexes|
Vagrant seals that visit our shores from further north
- Ringed seal – has rings around its spots and is the most northerly living pinniped
- Hooded seal – an arctic species that has the shortest lactation period of any mammal with pups weaned within about 4 days of birth. Males have big wobbly noses that they inflate.
- Harp seal – Beautifully banded coat very migratory species from the arctic
- Bearded seal – Named after their copious mystacial vibrissae (whiskers) they normally breed on ice flows and are not migratory
- Walruses, compared with the fast developing hooded seals, are big babies and may still be suckling at over 2 years old. They have the longest period of parental care among the pinnipeds.
- They live around the Arctic and our nearest breeding population is Svalbard (Spitzbergen)
- With about 300 ‘vibrissae’, walruses have more whiskers than any other pinniped but they also have the shortest whiskers so they are very difficult to mistake for anything else
- Young walruses have short brown hair but adults are almost naked
- Pups are usually born on sea ice
- A common food item is clams but they sometimes prey on ringed and hooded seals
- Walruses, unsurprisingly, have the longest teeth (tusks) of any pinniped which may grow to over a metre long. They are longer and broader in males.
- The scientific name Odobenus means ‘walks with its teeth’ in recognition of observations of walruses hauling themselves up onto ice flows using their tusks
- Walruses can change their colour from ghostly white to grey, brown and pink as they regulate their temperature by constricting and opening blood vessels
- Weighing in at over 1200kg walruses can be 4 times heavier than bull grey seals and twice the size of polar bears. For comparison, a typical Frisian cow weighs about 580kg.
Watching Seals Safely
As always it goes without saying, enjoy watching seal pups, but do it from a safe distance. If Mum is disturbed she can abandon the pup. Always keep dogs away from seal pupping beaches. Our recommendation is to grab your binoculars, head to the coast path and watch these beauties from a safe distance.
And then of course treat yourself to a lovely new seal pup notebook to celebrate 😉