Ringed seals are one of several species of ice seals: seals that live on, in, or around Arctic sea ice. Named for light-colored ‘rings’ on their backs, ringed seals are one of the smallest ice seals – reaching only 5 feet and weighing about 150 pounds. Despite their small stature, these seals are the most abundant in the Arctic; ranging throughout the Arctic ocean from Alaska to Northern Europe to Japan.
Ice is an essential part of ringed seals’ habitat and these seals have developed ways to maximize the kinds of ice they can live on. Other ice seals need to be close enough to the edge of the ice so they can reach the water to escape predators and hunt; ringed seals have the same requirements, but have a unique ability to dig holes in ice up to 6 feet thick.
Using strong claws on their front flippers, ringed seals excavate and maintain cone-shaped holes that provide an escape and hunting route to the sea. Ringed seals are also able to make long, deep dives (for up to 45 minutes and 300 feet deep). Each of these abilities – digging and diving – allows ringed seals to live further away from the edge of the ice, using a habitat that other ice seals cannot reach.
Digging is put to work again when finding shelter for their pups.
Ringed seals excavate snow drifts, building a sheltered cave (called a lair) to keep their little one safe. Ringed seal pups are born in the lair and are able to swim and dive soon after: a study found that pups just 30 days old spent half (50%) of their time in the water! Mothers have just one pup and stay with them for about two months while they teach them to dive and hunt. Once weaned, the pups are on their own.
There are five subspecies of ringed seal – Arctic, Baltic, Lagoda, Okhotsk, and Saimaa – which are named for their habitat range (ie: Saimaa ringed seals live in Lake Saimaa in Finland). Each of these separate habitats isolated their ringed seal populations, leading to slight differences in size and coloring among the five subspecies. While ringed seals are widespread throughout the Arctic, two subspecies are listed as endangered (Lagoda and Saimaa) and the others classified as threatened.
But if ringed seals are so widespread and able to use areas of ice other seals can’t why are they threatened?
It all comes back to ice.
Global warming is the largest threat to all ringed seals (and ice seals in general) since they depend so heavily on ice. As the Earth continues to warm, the water at the poles warms and melts the ice faster. Have you ever dumped ice into the sink and run water over it? Of course if you leave ice long enough it will melt all by its lonesome, but if you run water (even cold water) over it the ice melts faster. Warm water? It melts in seconds. Now ice many feet thick won’t melt that quickly; instead, the ice will break up faster which could separate ringed seal pups from their mothers before they can survive on their own. Less ice can also prevent mothers from having pups – this is one aspect of the Saimaa ringed seal population decline.
Now let’s think about snow… remember ringed seal lairs, basically nursery’s built from snow. As the Earth warms, snowfall in the Arctic may decrease. There’s not as much snow in North Carolina as there is in Pennsylvania because NC is warmer: so a warmer Arctic = less snowfall. Less snow could mean there is not enough to build a sturdy lair; a lair with a thick roof provides the pup more protection from predators and the elements. Warmer temperatures, and rain instead of snow, can cause the roofs of lairs to collapse – which leaves the little ringed babies exposed.
Ringed seals are not the only species that would be affected if populations declined due to global warming. As Mufasa so wisely stated –
“We are all connected in the great circle of life”
Sorry, not sorry! Ringed seals are the number one source of food for polar bears. Fewer ringed seal dinners = fewer polar bears. Other predators that hunt ringed seals include – orcas (killer whales), walrus, arctic foxes, gulls – which hunt exposed pups 😦 and humans. What, humans? Yes, Native populations depend on ringed seals for food, clothing, oil, equipment, and crafts. Otherwise, hunting is prevented by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.
With polar bears and humans depending on ringed seals for survival, it’s a good thing they are the most widespread seal in the Arctic. It’s sad, and kind of scary, to think about the ripple affect that would be caused by this species’ decline. In order for that to be prevented, Arctic sea ice needs to be protected.