March 22nd is International Day of the Seal, a day to celebrate and promote the conservation of seals around the world. You probably have an idea of what a seal is: a mammal that lives in the ocean with flippered hands and feet. But there’s much more to seals than that! So read on, and let’s commemorate the day be learning more about these playful pinnipeds.
What’s a pinniped? It’s the scientific name for seals, which belong to the group known as Pinnipeda. This order contains three families: the “true” seals (also known as “earless seals”), the sea lions and fur seals (or “eared seals”), and the walrus. Collectively, the animals in each of these families can correctly be called “seals”. What’s the difference between them all?
Well, earless seals are so named because they don’t have any external ear flaps, making them appear to have no ears at all. Fur seals and sea lions, meanwhile, have visible ears. Sea lions can also turn their back flippers forward, allowing them to get around much easier out of the water. True seals can’t do this, and therefore have a tougher time on land. The walrus shares features with both eared and earless seals, but is pretty unmistakable in its own right, due to its massive blubbery body and large tusks.
|Harp Seal, a "true" seal||California Sea Lion, an "eared" seal||Walrus, a "walrus"|
Seals as we know them today have been around for a little under 25 million years. They are members of the order Carnivora, which also includes bears, canids (such as wolves and foxes), cats, hyenas, mongooses (like the meerkat) and musteloids, a group that includes raccoons, badgers, weasels, wolverines, red pandas and otters. It is thought that the animals that would evolve into seals first broke away from the rest of the Carnivora group around 50 million years ago, although scientists still disagree on whether they were more closely linked to bears or musteloids. Though it was once thought that earless and eared seals evolved separately and were not closely related, scientists now believe they shared a common ancestor.
Today there are 33 species of pinnipeds. They include the leopard seal, which is the top predator in Antarctica after the killer whale. Named for its leopard-like spots and sharp, leopard-like teeth, this large powerful seal preys on penguins, squid, and even other seals. While the leopard seal is an earless “true” seal, the California sea lion is an eared seal which prefers the warmer waters of the Pacific coast of North America to the frigid Antarctic. These pinnipeds are highly intelligent and are even trained by the U.S. Navy to locate undersea mines, deliver items to divers, and find and retrieve equipment.
|Leopard Seal||Sea Lion|
One of the most unique pinnipeds is the walrus. These large animals can weigh over 4,000 lbs. and are instantly recognizable with their long, straight tusks protruding from their upper jaws. These tusks can be over three feet in length, and are used by males to fight for the affection of females. Walruses also use their tusks to poke breathing holes in sea ice, and to assist them in climbing out of the water.
Of the 33 seal species, ten are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as either “Vulnerable”, “Endangered” or “Critically Endangered”. Pinnipeds face many threats to their survival, including ocean pollution and contamination from chemicals and oil spills. They also become tangled in fishing nets and can be injured by boats. Many seals prefer cold water habitats, and climate change can have a significant negative effect on their populations. Within the last hundred years, two species have gone extinct: the Caribbean monk seal and the Japanese sea lion. In both cases, overhunting by humans led to their extinction.
Seals, like many other animals, are in need of protection. To learn more about what is being done to preserve these amazing animals, check out the World Wildlife Fund and the International Fund for Animal Welfare…and help spread the word about seals on their special day!
Bernie’s Bonus Fun Fact: While most seals are covered in short fur, the adult male walrus has almost no hair. It relies on its thick skin – up to two inches thick! – and a heavy layer of blubber for protection, and insulation from the cold.
To create your own seal adventures at home, check out all of our Seal, Sea Lion and Walrus toys: