Scientific Name: Pagophilus groenlandicus
General Description: The harp seal is also known as the Greenland seal, saddle seal or saddleback seal. Harp seals are named for the irregular horseshoe-shaped band of black across the back of the adult male. The background colour of the pelt is steel blue when wet, and pale grey when dry. Males are silvery grey with a black head and a horseshoe-shaped band across the back and the flanks. Females have a lighter head and also the "harp" is lighter and can be fragmented. Pups have a silky white fur at birth and moult after 1 week. After moulting they are silvery grey with irregular dark and black spots.
Size: Bulls typically measure 1.7 m long while cows are 1.6 m long. Weight varies widely, from 85-180 kg, depending on the time of year, but 130 kg is typical. Pups measure 90-105 cm at birth and weigh 6-10 kg.
Longevity: Up to 35 years of age.
Range and Habitat: Harp seals are widely distributed throughout the North Atlantic, migrating between sub-Arctic and Arctic waters. They breed in three areas: on the pack ice in the White Sea (an inlet of the Barents Sea on the northwest coast of Russia), around Jan Mayen Island southeast of Spitsbergen, and off Newfoundland in the Northwest Atlantic. Of these populations, that in the Northwest Atlantic is by far the largest.
The Northwest Atlantic population spend the summer in the Canadian Arctic and along the west coast of Greenland. In early autumn they begin migrating south just ahead of the formation of the local pack ice, with the older animals migrating first. By late November they reach the southern Labrador coast. They then divide with about a third of the mature seals going to a whelping ground in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, usually in the vicinity of the Magdalen Islands, and the remainder, including most of the immatures, continuing southwards to an area northeast of Newfoundland known as the Front.
Diet: Young harp seals feed mainly on shrimp. Adults eat capelin, polar cod, herring, cod and shrimp. They eat 1-5% of their body weight of fish per day.
Predators: Humans, killer whales, polar bears, sharks and walrus.
Population: Estimates of harp seal abundance range between 5.5 and 6.5 million for the Northwest Atlantic population, 300,000 for the east Greenland population (breeding near Jan Mayen), and 1.2 million for the White Sea population.
Reproduction: From December to February, intensive feeding takes place as the pregnant cows increase their fat in preparation for whelping which begins in late February in the Gulf, and about eight days later on the Front. The breeding season can extend for several weeks but most of the pups are born in a much shorter period of a week to ten days.
Pups are born in March and weaned after about 12 days. They are then abandoned by their mothers. Single pups are the norm, with twins being rare.
Newborn pups, known as "whitecoats" because of their long, white fur, weigh about 11 kg. They gain weight (mainly fat) very rapidly, move little on the ice, and do not enter the water.
After about 14 days, weighing about 35 kg, they start to shed their white fur, and after 10 days of the "raggedy jacket" stage they sport a short, spotted pelage, and become known as "beaters". Beaters are more wary than whitecoats, and may enter the water if approached.
At the Front, the beaters drift southwards with the pack ice and begin active feeding largely on zooplankton. In early April the immatures and adult males haul out on the receding pack ice to moult, with the adult females moulting about two weeks later. The summer migration of these age groups to Arctic waters then begins with the beaters following about a month later. Most of the beaters and immature seals summer along the West Greenland coast with the mature seals feeding mainly in the Canadian Arctic. However, a significant number of mature seals also spend the summer and autumn in West Greenland waters and some even remain there over the winter.
IUCN Status: LOWER RISK (LR) - A taxon is Lower Risk when it has been evaluated, does not satisfy the criteria for any of the categories Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable. Least Concern (lc). Taxa which do not qualify for Conservation Dependent or Near Threatened.