Tag Archives: pups

Svalbard polar bears thrive in part due to ringed seal pups in the spring pack ice

Few people know that Arctic ringed seals (Phoca hispida, aka Pusa hispida) give birth and breed in the offshore pack ice in the spring, as it is seldom mentioned by either seal or polar bear specialists.

While it is true that some ringed seals give birth in stable shorefast ice close to shore, many others give birth well offshore in thick pack ice – where polar bears also live and hunt in the spring but where few Arctic scientists ever venture – and the existence of pack ice breeding ringed seals is one of the reasons that polar bears are such a resilient species.

ringed-seal-in-snow-cave_b-kelly-wikipedia

Ringed seal pup in a snow cave, B. Kelly photo (Wikipedia).

As a consequence, despite fears expressed by Ian Stirling, low shorefast ice and associated snow around Svalbard this winter (and any time in the past) is not necessarily a hindrance to polar bear survival because there are ringed seal pups available out in the surrounding pack ice – where bearded seals also give birth.

Of course, ringed seals pups are also available to Svalbard polar bears in the shorefast ice in the Franz Josef Land archipelago to the east (see map below) but it is the pups born in the offshore pack ice that are of interest here. The existence of pack ice breeding ringed seals may be why Norwegian biologists do not currently monitor ringed seals in the Barents Sea, despite many years of poor ice conditions around Svalbard in spring – this simply is not a species of concern.

barents-sea-ice-2017-feb-6_nis

The fact that distinct ringed seal ecotypes (or habitat-specific morphotypes) exist in the Arctic – one that gives birth and breeds in shorefast ice and another that gives birth and breeds in offshore pack ice, perhaps driven by competition for limited shorefast ice habitat – is a phenomenon a colleague and I discussed in a peer-reviewed book chapter published several years ago. Have a look at the excerpt below and see what you think.

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Human sees cute – polar bear sees dinner

Newborn harp seals are food for Davis Strait, East Greenland and Kara Sea polar bears but wildlife photographers see only cute furry babies with big eyes and trusting natures.

Harp sea newborn_wikipedia

See these photos taken some unknown spring (early March) in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada (published 29 December 2015 by Mailonline): the pups are kind of skinny when first born but fatten up quickly on fat-rich milk from their attentive mothers. Ask yourself: does this photographer know that the fattest of these baby seals he oh’s and ah’s over in his commentary are just what polar bears depend on for their existence – and that the bears will eat as many of them as they can catch, peeling them like bananas so that they can eat the skin and fat first?

The title of the piece is: “Eye-eye! Cheeky seal cubs just a few days old wink and pose for the camera as they wait for their mother to feed them:

  • The young Harp seal pups had never seen humans before the pictures were taken
  • They were photographed in their habitat of Madeleine Island in Quebec, Canada
  • Harp seals are solitary animals except during breeding season, when they congregate in their thousands

“These seal-ebrities from Canada are pictured striking hilarious poses that even Cara Delevingne would be proud of.

The three Harp seal pups – just days old – were passing time while they waited for their mother to return from hunting.

One pup looked straight to the camera with a cheeky wink, while another lay on its back looking longingly at the lens.

The impressive poses were captured by photographer Gunther Riehle, who was lucky enough to get just feet away from the baby seals on Madeleine Island in Quebec.”

See the photos here. Harp seal and hooded seal distribution and breeding areas in the Eastern Arctic (from DFO Canada).

Harp and hooded seal pupping areas and distribution_Stenson 2014 fig 1

More polar bear seal prey info here. See potential consequences of lots of polar bears depending on abundant harp seals north of Newfoundland in my novel, EATEN.