Friday, January 20, 2012

Creature Feature: Ribbon Seal.

This blog does not get many pinnipeds. It's not that we don't like them, it's more like they simply are not the author's specialty. When something pinniped-related does get our attention, it usually requires a bit of research on our part.

Hi ma!

One woman in Seattle recently saw this seal resting on her dock. She snapped a photo of the strange-looking seal and sent it to her local wildlife commission. The district supervisor of the USDA in Washington, Matthew Cleland, correctly identified the animal as a ribbon seal - a seal found waaayyy farther north on a more regular basis.

Ribbon seals (Histriophoca fasciata) are usually seen in the Arctic regions of Alaska and Russia. Like most seals, they eat fish. They spend almost all of their time in open water, making them hard for naturalists to track. They only stop on ice for a few months to mate and give birth, so seeing one as far south as Washington is mind-blowing. Starbucks isn't that great.

These seals do not start life with their striking black and white patterning. Younger ribbon seals look a lot like harp seals, a species commonly hunted for their fur. This led to many seal pups being killed as if they were harp seals - that is, until people thought it fishy that a harp seal would be swimming solo. The hunting of ribbon seals was banned in Russia in 1969. Only adult seals are confused for mammalian penguins.

This appearance in Washington is not the first time ribbon seals have decided to take vacations. One male wandered all the way down to California. The seal was found at Morrow Bay, a small town north of Los Angeles. Although it was taken to a local aquarium, it died a month later. Sightings as far south as the continental U.S. are not unheard of, but still very rare.

Ribbon seals are currently in the purgatory called "Vulnerable." Something can only be considered endangered once we know how many individuals are out there.We know that the Alaskan population numbers around 250,000 individuals, but, even with hunting restricted, global climate change may present another threat. Even if these seals aren't quite endangered,they my fall there very, very soon.

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