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There is little difference in size between male and female harp seals. Males will reach a maximum length of 6’3’’ and 310 pounds while females can reach 5’11” and weigh 290 pounds.
Harp seals are found in the pack ice regions of the North Atlantic Ocean and White Sea ranging from Newfoundland to northern Russia. In winter, harp seals can migrate as far south as Virginia and even over to Scotland, Germany and France.
Harp seals have a robust body with a small, broad head and a narrow snout. Front flippers are short with thick claws and hind flippers have small narrow claws. Adult harp seals are easily identifiable by their black face and black harp shaped coloration extending from the shoulder to the pelvis. Young adults and yearlings will have a silver coat with scattered black spots and newborn pups have a long, white coat.
Harp seals are a pack ice species and will follow the ice as it recedes north to summer feeding grounds.
In the summer months, harp seals will feed mostly on polar and arctic cod but in fall and spring will feed on capelin, herring and krill.
Humans have been a major predator of the harp seal since the late 1700’s, commercially hunting them for oils, fur, skin and in some cases, meat. Other predators include polar bears, orcas and sharks.
Female harp seals will give birth on the pack ice from mid-February to early March and will wean newborn pups for 12 days. During this time, breeding males will search out females and defend them from other males. Just after weaning in later March or early April, mating will occur. Gestation is approximately 11 months.
Mystic Aquarium's Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator, Janelle Schuh, answers some questions about Harp seals and what happens when a stranded seal comes to Mystic. Make sure to check out more of our interview with Janelle under the video tab.
Q: What is the role of the animal rescue program?
A: “Mystic Aquarium’s Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Program assists animals in need but also educates the public about the marine environment and its inhabitants. Also, every animal we encounter gives us valuable information on marine mammal populations as well as the health of the world’s oceans.
Q: What species of animals will the program respond to?
A: “We will respond to any marine mammal or sea turtle that may need assistance while along the Connecticut or Rhode Island coasts. This includes: harbor, hooded, harp and gray seals, leatherback, loggerhead, green and Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles, harbor porpoises, common and white-sided dolphins and pilot whales.”
Q: What are the most commonly seen species that enter the clinic?
A: "The most common animals to enter the clinic are harp and harbor seals in January all the way into April or May."
Q: Why do harp seals strand?
A: "Seals can strand for many reasons but the most commonly seen issues seem to be dehydration, malnourishment, injuries and interactions with humans. Harp seals sometimes ingest rocks or sand on the beaches – they may be looking for ice and snow that they are usually resting on. When this happens, their stomach becomes full of rocks and they will feel full and stop eating. Marine mammals will get water from the food they each, so if they stop eating they will become dehydrated.”
Q: What happens to a seal once it enters the clinic?
A: “Before it can come to the clinic, the seal must be collected from the beach. When we get to the beach we have approved seal kennels to transfer the animal and use herding boards to encourage the seal into the kennel. This may sound easy but these are wild animals who are ill and don’t understand that we are trying to help. They may exhibit defense postures, bite, run away on front flippers even when they aren’t feeling well.
Q: Once a seal is healthy, will it stay at Mystic Aquarium?
A:"No, once an animal has entered the clinic, our goal is to rehabilitate and release the animal. In rare cases, an animal that is deemed non-releasable will be given a new home in another aquarium or zoo.”
Q: Are all seals that I see on land in need of help?
A: "No, unlike a whale or dolphin, a seal does not need to stay in the water. They can go without eating and swimming for 24 hours. However, if you see a seal and it looks sick or injured and has not gone into the water for over 24 hours, you should call stranding hotline.”
Q: What should I do if I see a seal in the wild?
A: “Call the aquarium's 24-hour Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Program Hotline at 860.572.5955 ext.107. Leave your name, a phone number where you can be reached, and the location of the animal. Give the animal plenty of space; crowding stresses the animal and may cause it to act aggressively. Keep pets away from the stranded animal. Not only can they bite and cause injury to the animal, but they may be injured by it. Diseases can also be transmitted between stranded animals and pets. Do not pour water on a seal, feed it, cover it or attempt to move it into the water. Do not touch the animal. All marine mammals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. This law makes it illegal to touch, disturb, feed or otherwise harass marine mammals without authorization. Be observant; take note of any obvious signs of injury, the overall body condition of the animal (is it robust or thin?), identification tags, the presence of other animals, the sea state and any recognizable landmarks that will make it possible to locate the animal.”
Species of the Month Podcast: What happens to a stranded sea lion?
Join Mystic Aquarium's Kelly Matis and MaryEllen Mateleska for a fun five minutes devoted to February's featured species: the Harp seal! In this podcast they discuss the differences between seals and sea lions.
Kelly and MaryEllen want to hear from you! Send questions, comments and suggestions for future podcast topics to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scientific Name: Pagophilus groenlandicus
Size: African penguins range from 18 to 25 inches tall and weigh up to 11 pounds
Range/Distribution: The only penguin to breed in Africa, the African penguin ranges from Namibia to South Africa. Young penguins have been known to migrate north and west along the coastline and are found between Southern Angola, Namibia, and sometimes found off Gabon, Congo, and Mozambique, but generally reside in South Africa.
Appearance: The African penguin has a robust, torpedo-shaped body with black feathers on their back, flippers, and head while white feathers cover their front with the exception of horseshoe-shaped black stripe on the chest. Following the penguin’s first few molts a white stripe will develop around its cheek and throat. These birds have a bare patch above their eyes to assist with regulating their body temperature.
Habitat: When not hunting for food in the water, African penguins are found along rocky shores or brushy coastal areas.
Prey: African penguins feed on 25 species of fish, such as sardine and anchovy but also prey on squid and krill. A penguin may eat up to one pound of food or up to 14% of their weight.
Predators: African penguins face predation by gulls, feral cats and mongoose while nesting on land, while sharks and fur seals hunt African penguins in the water.
Life Span: The African penguin may live up to late 30 years in an aquarium or zoo but averages of 15-20 years are seen in the wild populations.
Mating Behaviors: There are no set breeding seasons for African penguins, however, most penguin pairs are monogamous and will remain together over several breeding years. The male will prepare a nest by digging a shallow burrow in sand or in brush using guano (penguin waste) and any materials nearby to complete the nest for the female to lay two eggs. Both the male and female share the nesting and chick duties, keeping the young safe from predators and warm temperatures. The chicks will hatch between 38 and 42 days and will leave the nest when they are between 60 to 130 days of age.
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