Ringed Seal, Pusa hispida

The ringed seal (Pusa hispida), also known as the jar seal, is a true seal in the Phocidae family. Locally, it is known as nattiq or netsik in the Inuit language. It can be found in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, with a range that includes the Bering and Oshtok Seas, the Arctic Ocean, and the coastlines of Japan in the north Pacific. It also occurs in the North Atlantic on the coastlines of Scandinavia, Greenland, and Newfoundland.  Within its range, the ringed seal prefers areas with ice floes or pack ice. The classification of the ringed seal has been debated, and out of ten described subspecies, only five have been recognized, and two of these occur in freshwater areas in northern Europe.

The ringed seal is smallest Arctic seal, reaching an average body length between 40 and 69 inches and an average weight of up to 150 pounds, depending on the subspecies. It has a stout body with a cat-like nose and small flippers. The typical fur color for this species is dark, while the underbelly is silver, and its body is covered with silver rings.

The ringed seal depends heavily upon ice, spending a large portion of its life on or under ice floes. The breeding season occurs in the spring, during which time females will construct dens within the ice. After a male has located a possible breeding female, he will spend several days with her before mating and moving on to find another mate. The pregnancy period for this species can last up to nine months, after which one pup is born. Pups are typically weaned at one month of age, after they have grown a thick layer of blubber, and females will breed again shortly after this. Males reach sexual maturity at seven years of age, while females are able to breed earlier at four years of age.

The diet of the ringed seal consists of many species of fish and invertebrates, but it prefers to consume shrimp, arctic cod, herrings, and mysids. This species usually feeds alone, diving to a depth between ten and forty-five feet. During the summer, this species usually dives to shallower depths and feeds mostly on cod. The ringed seal is a main prey item for the polar bear, and young individuals may be hunted by arctic foxes and glaucous gulls. Adult ringed seals can be killed in the water by Greenland sharks, walruses, and orcas. The average lifespan of this species is between twenty-five and thirty years.

Native arctic peoples have always hunted the ringed seal, and this practice continues in modern times. Despite this traditional means of survival, the Government of Nunavut warned pregnant women about mercury levels in the seals in 2012, urging them not eat any seal livers. Other threats to this species include accidental capture in fishing nets, but the most dangerous threat is climate change, which is causing the ice levels in its range to decrease.

The current population of ringed seals in Alaska is estimated to be around 249,000 individuals, but whether this number will decline or increase is unknown. There is not much information known about the population trends, threats, or resistance to threats regarding this species, so it currently appears on the Endangered Species Act as not “threatened.” In 2008, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service initiated a study to acquire this information, but currently, the total population of ringed seals appears on the IUCN Red List with a conservation status of “Least Concern.”

Image Caption: Ringed seal (Phoca hispida) portrait. Credit: Lee Cooper/Wikipedia