Bearded seals are large phocids with a relatively small head and short fore flippers. The head is rounded and somewhat narrow, and the eyes are relatively small and close-set. The muzzle is wide and fleshy, with widely-spaced nostrils. The whiskers are sufficiently conspicuous to have given rise to the common name, “bearded” seal. The abundant vibrissae are pale, long, curved downwards, densely packed, and not beaded as in other Arctic phocids. When dry, the vibrissae curl inwards at the tips. The fore flippers are short, relatively broad, and strong, with robust claws. Unlike any other phocid, the bearded seal's fore flippers end in digits of about the same length, or with slightly longer middle digits. The result is a square, or slightly rounded, end to the fore flippers. Also, unlike all other Arctic phocids, bearded seals have four retractable mammae instead of two.
Adults are slightly darker above than below. Body coloration varies considerably and can be from light to dark gray, or tawny brown to dark brown. There can be rust coloration on the head, back of the neck and top of the fore flippers. The lanugo is shed in the uterus before birth and pups are born with a somewhat longer, dark brown to dark bluish gray, wavy coat. There are pale areas on the muzzle, around the eyes, and sometimes on the crown and top of the back. A line of dark color runs from the top of the head between the eyes and along the bridge of the nose.
Adults range up to 2.5 m in length. Adult females are slightly longer than males. In the Bering Sea, males reach 262 kg and females 361 kg. Pups are, on average, about 1.31 m and 33.6 kg at birth.
The dental formula is I 3/2, C 1/1, PC 5/5.
Two subspecies are recognized: E. b. barbatus from the central Canadian Arctic east to the central Russian Arctic including Greenland, Iceland, Jan Mayen, and Svalbard, and south to Norway and Newfoundland; and E. b. nauticus from the central Canadian Arctic west to central Arctic Russia, south to the Karaginsky Gulf, Russia, and Bristol Bay, Alaska, also including the Sea of Okhotsk south to northern Japan.
Can be Confused With
Bearded seals regularly share their range with seven other Arctic and subarctic phocids, including harbor, spotted, ringed, ribbon, harp, hooded, and gray seals. Of these, most are smaller, spotted (or otherwise uniquely colored), or generally distributed further south. In the North Atlantic, the bearded seal is most likely to be mistaken for the similar-sized hooded seal when hauled-out, except when the distinctive coloration of the hooded seal can be seen.
Bearded seals have a circumpolar distribution in the Arctic, generally south of 80°N. They are subarctic in some areas, such as the lower Bering Sea, Sea of Okhotsk to northern Japan, and western North Atlantic, where they reach the Gulf of St. Lawrence. They usually restrict themselves to sea ice and stay in relatively shallow continental shelf areas of continuously moving ice, where open leads and polynyas regularly form. In some areas, they are known to haul-out on shore, ascend streams, or live a pelagic existence away from ice and land for long periods of time.
Ecology and Behavior
Pups are born in the open on the surface of the pack ice, from mid-March to early May. After the breeding season, many seals migrate northward with the retreating ice, returning south again as the ice advances in fall and winter.
Bearded seals are solitary and rarely haul-out on the same ice floe together, and even then, maintain healthy distances from neighbors. Mother and pup pairs are an exception to this rule. At times, bearded seals seem to concentrate in an area and this may be due to shifting winds and currents driving ice floes together or because of favorable feeding opportunities. Bearded seals are exceptionally wary and always haul-out and position themselves with their head very close to the water at the edge of an ice floe, along a crack, or by a hole.
In the water, bearded seals can be found “bottling,” or floating vertically head-up, asleep. When startled, they bolt into the water and swim with strong strokes of the fore flippers with the head held up in a manner that looks like they are rising and surging through the surface of the water. When in the water and disturbed by a passing ship, bearded seals will roll steeply forward to dive, raise the lower back and rear flippers in the air and splash the flippers on the surface. This is often done repeatedly as the seal swims away from the direction the ship is traveling.
Bearded seals primarily feed on or near the bottom, and live in shallow areas overlying the continental shelf. They generally dive to depths of 200 m or less and frequently are found in much shallower areas. The longest dives recorded have been 20-25 minutes, with most dives lasting less than 10 minutes. They are quite vocal in the water and are known for their oscillating frequency-modulated songs that can last more than a minute and be heard in air and for long distances underwater. Singing has largely been attributed to males, but it is likely that females sing as well. Besides humans, predators include polar bears, killer whales and Greenland sharks.
Feeding and Prey
Bearded seals feed on a large diversity of demersal fish species and invertebrates that live on, and in, the bottom. Different combinations of prey dominate feeding at different times of year and in different locations, and juveniles and adults have different prey preferences. In the Bering and Chukchi seas fishes taken included capelin, Arctic and saffron cod, long-snouted pricklebacks, sculpins, flatfishes, several snailfish species, and eelpouts. Invertebrates were dominated by several species each of crabs, clams, snails, amphipods, shrimps, marine worms and octopus.
Threats and Status
Native peoples of the Arctic have hunted bearded seals for subsistence for thousands of years. This practice continues to the present, with several thousand being taken annually throughout their circumpolar Arctic range. Bearded seals provide numerous products, including food for humans and sled dogs, oil for lamps, skins for clothing, boats and tent coverings, and leather for sinews, to name a few, and they are important in many other culturally important ways. The worldwide population is estimated at 500,000 with more than half of these thought to live in the Bering and Chukchi seas. Commercial exploitation by Soviet whalers in the Sea of Okhotsk and Bering and Chukchi seas during the mid-twentieth century resulted in harvests of thousands to more than 10,000 animals per year lasting several decades.