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Antarctic Fur Seal - Southern Fur Seal
Arctocephalus gazella

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1/ What are Southern fur seals like?

4/ How do the mothers care for their young?

2/ Weren't southern fur seals  endangered at one time? 5/ Why are the males so much bigger than the females?
3/ Are these seals very rare now? 6/ Are these seals as agile as they look?
1/ What are Southern fur seals like?
Fur seals belong to the group known as the Otarid or "eared" seals, this group contains fur seals and sea-lions that have a visible earflap.

Antarctic fur seals are more accurately called "Southern fur seals". In appearance and manner they resemble a large dog (albeit a funny shaped one). They are able to bring their rear flippers under their body and take the weight of their body on their fore-flippers and so are much more agile on land compared to others such as elephant, weddell and crabeater seals.

The males can reach 200kg (440lb) and can be up to 4 times larger than the females. They are restricted mainly to the sub-Antarctic islands, with 95% of the worlds population being found on the island of South Georgia.

2/ Weren't southern fur seals  endangered at one time?
In the 1700's and 1800's, fur seals were almost completely wiped out by sealers. Captain James Cook visited the island of South Georgia in 1775 and reported that there a great many seals present.  

This led to sealers setting sail to bring back the pelts of these animals. They were very popular for their dense short fibred fur that was made into ladies coats.

Within 25 years of being discovered, the catch in one summer was 112 000 animals. By 1822, the southern fur seal was virtually extinct on South Georgia. Ironically perhaps, it was the quest for new populations of fur seals that led to much of the early exploration of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. By the beginning of the 1900's the southern fur seal was a rare animal indeed, a single male was sighted on South Georgia in 1916 and duly killed.

 

3/ Are these seals very rare now?
The rest of the fur seal story is much happier. In 1931 a scientific expedition discovered a small breeding colony of a few hundred on Bird Island (just off the coast of South Georgia). 

The decline of the fur seal coincided with the rise of whaling. Baleen whales and fur seals both feed on the same food - krill. As the whales were slaughtered in ever increasing numbers so there was ever more krill available for the fur seals to feed on.

By the end of the 1950's the world population of fur seals stood at about 5 000, by 1976 on South Georgia alone it had reached 100 000. In 1993 the estimated population was around 1.5 million with more and more seals being found further away from South Georgia and beginning to breed further afield too. The population in 2000 was estimated to be around 4 million though this is based on projected figures from 1993.

So altogether this is a story of a remarkable come-back almost from the brink of extinction to one of a very large and healthy population of these wonderful creatures.

 

4/ How do the mothers care for their young?
Fur seal pups weigh about 5-6 kg (11 - 13lb) at birth, unlike some other Antarctic seals, the females feed regularly while they are suckling rather than surviving on fat reserves until the pup has grown quite large.

A fishing trip lasts between 3 and 6 days so the growth of a young fur seal is rather irregular and weaning happens later than with other species.

5/ Why are the males so much bigger than the females?
When one sex is different to the other, this is known as "sexual dimorphism".

Seals spend much of the year swimming through the seas fishing as they go, while they may spend time with other seals, they do not form strong bonds with a partner to rear their young.

When born, the young are fed only on milk by the mother and soon learn to fish for themselves. Birthing usually takes place on a beach with many other seals and the female comes into oestrous (i.e. is ready to mate again) shortly after giving birth.

Because of this life-style, many seals have evolved a strong sexual dimorphism. The males arrive on the birthing beaches often before the females and fight to establish and defend their territories. The most successful male, often known as the "beachmaster" gets to mate with as many as a hundred females that are in his territory.

Therefore there is a great advantage to being big and strong, and if a male is not among the biggest and strongest, he will not get to mate at all. This has led to a pronounced sexual dimorphism.

 

6/ Are these seals as agile as they look?
Fur seals are very agile partly because of the arrangement of their flippers, and partly because being essentially sub-Antarctic seals, they don't have as much blubber as other types.

They have a surprising turn of speed and can venture some distance inland. A first encounter with fur seals, particularly if there are lots of them, is often very disconcerting. They begin by making a plaintive "pouff pouff" sound as you get close and then may make a short charge and lunge.

Once you get used to them however, they are great characters and great fun, like having big bouncy dogs about that want to have fun but aren't really sure of whether you do, or if you might be a threat. They still have to be treated with respect though a bite would be especially unpleasant as they have a particularly rich and unpleasant bacterial collection that live in their mouths.

"Sealers finger" was a common affliction in the bad old days when a sealer got too close, the resulting infection would often mean the loss of the use of that finger (serves 'em right!).

This two picture comes from one afternoon when I was walking along the sea-shore where there were young fur seals. This particular seal followed me for about 20 minutes or so as we played a game of peek-a-boo, him in the sea and me behind the rocks. He might look a bit manic, but it was all great fun.

I'd hide behind a rock and he's wander up and down making the "pouff-pouff" sound then I'd jump out from the rock and he'd leap into the sea in mock panic. A couple of powerful strokes of the flippers and he'd turn back round, shoot out of the sea and land virtually at my feet - my turn to leap away in (not always mock) panic. A wonderful experience with a totally wild animal and one of many that I had with fur seals.

On another occasion, I remember playing chase on my hands and knees in soft snow with a young seal. Wonderful animals! Can't have enough of them!

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