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Harbor Seals are part of the â€śtrue sealâ€ť family, Phocidae. True seals lack external ear flaps and have short forelimbs that result in limited locomotion on land.
Male harbor seals are slightly larger than females, weigh up to 245 pounds (110 kg), and measure anywhere from about 5.6-6.3 feet (1.7 to 1.9 m) in length. Harbor seals in Alaska and the Pacific Ocean are generally larger than those found in the Atlantic Ocean. Harbor sealsâ€™ color varies but they often have a blue-gray back with light and dark speckling.
They have short, concave, dog-like snouts and tend to haul out on land in a banana-like fashion with their head and rear flippers elevated. Harbor seals eat a variety of prey consisting mainly of fish, shellfish, and crustaceans.
They are cinnamon brown in color with white under parts that have a yellow tinge. Twice a year these weasels shed their fur, once in the spring and again in the fall. This process is controlled by photoperiod. The coat of animals in northern populations is white in the winter and brown in the summer, while those in southern populations are brown year round.
Harbor seals live in temperate coastal habitats and use rocks, reefs, beach, and drifting glacial ice as haul out and pupping sites. Harbor seals haul out on land for rest, thermal regulation, social interaction, and to give birth. Seals also haul out to avoid predators. Studies have shown that seals in groups spend less time scanning for predators than those that haul out alone.
Life Cycle: Most male harbor seals reach sexual maturity at 5-6 years of age at a weight of about 75 kg. Females reach sexual maturity earlier at 2-5 years or 50 kg. Mating season varies between subspecies, but generally in the warmer months. Females are ready to breed about 6 weeks after they give birth. The gestation period lasts between 9-11 months, and usually only 1 pup is born each year measuring 70-100 cm in length and weighing 8-12 kg.
Many harbor seal pups are born with their adult coat, having shed their light colored woolly coat before birth. Some pups however, most often pups of younger mothers, are born with their pre-natal coat and molt shortly after birth.
Harbor seal can crawl and swim almost immediately after they are born, often within an hour of birth, which is useful for pups born in intertidal areas. Pups are nursed mostly on land but also in water for about 4 weeks during which time they will gain 0.5-0.7 kg per day. The mother makes short feeding trips while she is nursing, for longer periods of time as she begins to wean, which is either abrupt or gradual. After weaning, pups disperse often traveling long distances like other seal pup species.
Other seal species, mating takes place primarily in the water. Adult males gather in potential breeding areas and compete by performing aquatic displays, underwater vocalizations, and fighting takes place as demonstrated by neck wounds commonly seen during the breeding season. Some researchers believe that the males maintain underwater territories. Males lose up to 25% of their body weight during the breeding season from the energetic requirements of competing and breeding.
Harbor seals have historically been hunted primarily for their skins, oil, and meat. They have also been exploited in the production of jewelry and trinkets, and as meat for mink feeding. Phoca vitulina are widely enjoyed by human voyeurs both in the wild and at aquaria. The species has been used in experimental medical research, but increasingly injured and sick Harbor Seals are, instead, rescued, tested for clues to marine chemistry and pathogen content and thereafter rehabilitated and released..An example of such systematic use of Harbor seals and other pinnipeds is at The Marine Mammal Center, in Marin County, California.
Fisherman sometimes regard P vitulina as an interference with their commercial fisheries, since this seal will sometimes be observed eating fish that have been entrained in nets, although the Harbor Seal frequently meets with its own demise in such cases by becoming trapped in the nets.
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