The bearded seal or Erignathus barbatus is the Santa Claus of seals with fabulously long whiskers that curl a bit when dry. And how fitting since they live not far from the North Pole at the edge of the sea ice that extends in all directions from this northern most point. But the whiskers of the bearded seal look more like a full-bodied mustache, Tom Selleck style, only whitish-tan in color.
Now this is the first time I’ve read about a seal where the females weigh more than males, but both average eight feet in length. Females can weigh up to 900 plus pounds while males average closer to 600, this is a nice switch on sexual dimorphism for seals, usually it’s the opposite. But it’s still difficult to tell males and females apart in the wild despite these weight differences.
According to the Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, bearded seals have a really distinct look with very rectangular shaped bodies, with matching rectangular flippers, which look more like bear claws in the photos. Bearded seals like to hang out on moving ice always with an eye towards the water. They often leave the ice to dive in shallow coastal waters for a variety of critters living along the ocean floor.
By using their super sensitive whiskers, bearded seals are able to find clams, shrimp, crabs, squid, fish and many other bottom-dwelling marine creatures for dinner. The bearded seal’s whiskers are actually “among the most sensitive in the animal world with 1,300 mylinated axons (“nerve-endings”) associated with each whisker.” Impressive.
While bearded seals seem to be doing pretty well, it’s tough to know how they will fair as global warming advances, possibly melting their favorite floating ice hangouts. Their whiskers are a terrific trait and useful tool, but can they save bearded seals once their home has turned to water? Stay tuned…