Photo: Ringed seal just below the surface

Carefully scanning the ice for lurking polar bears, a ringed seal surfaces to catch a breath of air. Like most Arctic animals today, however, this seal's biggest threat is not a predator but global warming.

Photograph by Paul Nicklen

Map

Map: Ringed seal range

Ringed Seal Range

Fast Facts

Type:
Mammal
Diet:
Arctic cod and crustaceans
Average life span in the wild:
40 years
Size:
Up to 5 ft (1.65m)
Weight:
Up to 150 lbs (70 kg)
Group name:
Colony
Size relative to a 6-ft (2-m) man:
Illustration: Seal compared with adult man

The most common and widely distributed seals in the Arctic, ringed seals make their home throughout the Northern Hemisphere’s circumpolar oceans, where they feed on polar and arctic cod and a variety of planktonic crustaceans. Different populations have different names and some variation in behavior and appearance. But ringed seals—the smallest seal species—get their name from the light-colored circular patterns that appear on their darker gray backs. Some of these markings are so dense, in fact, that they take on the look of splattered paint.

Most of the ringed seals' time is spent near shore ice, but their ability to maintain cone-shaped breathing holes—which the animals excavate in the ice using the claws of their front flippers—allows them to occupy areas much farther from the ice edge than other seals can reach. Physiological adaptations help them make deep, sustained dives, reaching depths of 300 feet (90 meters) and remaining submerged for up to 45 minutes. But before surfacing, they sometimes blow bubbles up their breathing hole to check for polar bears, their main predator.

The only time these largely solitary creatures come together is when they gather on sea ice to breed, molt, and rest, sticking close to breathing holes and cracks in the ice in case they need to make a quick escape. They build lairs—a kind of snow cave—as soon as enough snow accumulates, becoming very territorial about them and the breathing holes and underwater areas beneath them.

Females reach sexual maturity at about six years old. After mating, implantation is delayed for several weeks. Then, following a gestation period of 9 to 11 months, the female gives birth to one pup, raising it within the seclusion of a lair. The shelter protects the newborn from harsh weather and predators.

After about two months, pups are weaned and left to fend for themselves. Although they learn to dive shortly after birth, they’re still preyed upon heavily by arctic foxes, birds, walruses, polar bears, and other animals.

Native hunters kill ringed seals for subsistence throughout their range, and pollutants affect populations in the Baltic seas. But a more widespread threat to their numbers is climate change, which is reducing the expanse of their icy world.

Mammal Features

  • Photo: Close-up of an African lion

    Animal Conservation

    Find out what National Geographic Society is doing to save animals all over the world, and learn what you can do to help.

  • hawaiian-monk-critter-cam.jpg

    Crittercam Helps Study Rare Species

    The Hawaiian monk seal is one of the oldest species of seal on the planet. But their tenure in paradise is perilously close to its end; only about 1,100 seals remain in the wild.

  • Masai Mara Lion

    Lions Quiz

    The king of cats rules with a roar and a fierce bite. What else do you know about this top predator?

  • Photo: Lion bares his teeth

    Cause an Uproar

    Big cats are quickly disappearing. Now is the time to act. Cause an uproar to save big cats today.

Photos

  •  Picture of a Malayan tiger

    Pictures: Tiger Subspecies

    Scientists estimate only about 3,000 wild tigers are left in the entire world. Meet the subspecies and see what threats each is facing.

See more animal photos »

From the Magazine

  • Photo of the lions of the Vumbi pride.

    The Surprising Lives of Lions

    In case you missed it: See these breathtaking videos and photos from inside a wild Serengeti pride.

  • Photo: Two adult preen, Ireland

    Gannets Pictures

    Champion divers but clumsy landers, doting parents but hostile neighbors—northern gannets abound in contradictions.