The ringed seal, which gets its name from the pattern of small, light circles on its back, is the smallest of the pinniped species. Ringed seals are gray or brown in color with small heads, short snouts, and small front flippers with strong claws. Ringed seals vary greatly in size, reaching anywhere from 3.6 to 5.7 feet (1.1 to 1.7 meters) and weighing between 70 and 270 pounds (30 and 120 kilograms).
Ringed seals live in the Arctic seas and the North Pacific Ocean, as far south as Japan. They are mainly found in or around ice-covered areas. Sea ice is important to ringed seals, as it provides protection from some of its predators. However, polar bears—a predator of ringed seals—spend a lot of time on sea ice hunting these seals.
A ringed seal will eat what's available to it, including fish, crustaceans, and cephalopods. Younger seals tend to eat more crustaceans than adults. During their spring molt, ringed seals reduce their food intake.
Most ringed seals give birth in lairs on ice floes. Pups are born with a white coat, also called a lanugo, which they shed after about three weeks. Adult ringed seals molt from mid-May to mid-July, after each breeding season.
Ringed seals are facing an increasingly dire outlook due to climate change. Arctic sea ice has contracted dramatically over the last decade, and climate models predict that continuing sea ice decline may soon lead to conditions insufficient to support seals. Ringed seals seldom come ashore, depending almost exclusively on sea ice for their reproduction and livelihood. Less ice means less seals.
Ringed seals are also threatened by reduced snowfall. Their pups are born and spend the first few weeks of life in snow dens, which protect them from predators and freezing. Diminishing snowfall, earlier snow melt, and winter rains are pushing more pups out of their shelters before they are able to survive in the open. An additional challenge is that ringed seals have only one pup per year, making them especially vulnerable to environmental changes.
In December 2012, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that the ringed seal, as well as the bearded seal, would be listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act because of the risks posed by melting sea ice and reduced snowfall.
Fewer ringed seals could have dire consequences for the polar bear as well. Polar bears hunt seal pups in their maternity dens. However, with pups spending less time in their maternity dens, polar bears are missing an easy and important springtime prey.
A young ringed seal doubles its weight within two months of birth.
Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
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