Photo Credit: Ice Stories
The ribbon seal is not something that most of us ever get the chance to see, that’s because the Arctic species isn’t like most other seals – it spends most of its life at sea, swimming the frigid waters off Alaska and Russia and typically shuns dry land.
Satellite tracking studies have revealed that ribbon seals do sometimes make it as far as the north Pacific Ocean, south of the Aleutian islands, but much about the species remains mysterious. Because they spend so much of their lives in the open water, it’s a challenge to track them. One lone ribbon seal somehow made its way to the Puget Sound in the waters south of Seattle in 2012, shocking the woman whose dock it was hanging out on as she had no idea what it was – and neither did Matthew Cleland, district supervisor in western Washington for the USDA’s Wildlife Services.
Named for the unmistakable stark white markings that ring their necks, flippers and hindquarters, they truly look like a piece of art.
They aren’t born with their beautiful stripes, however.
Photo Credit: scientificamerican.com
The babies look like soft, velvety clouds of unbridled joy. Newborn, they weigh in at around 20 pounds, and over the next three to four weeks, they’ll gain an extra 44 pounds or so. After a month, they’ll be completely abandoned by mom on an ice floe, right when they’re so fat they can barely swim. Then, they spend the next three weeks living off nothing but their fat stores while they teach themselves how to survive. It usually takes another two months before a ribbon seal pup can swim as well as the adults, and it’ll start off hunting small crabs and prawns before working their way up to the seals’ preferred diet of squid, walleye pollock and eelpouts.
At around five weeks old, that’s ribbon seal pups will molt away their thick, grey coats to reveal their striped pajamas beneath, and these will continue to develop over the next three years as the seal approaches sexual maturity.
The only active predators of ribbon seals are humans, though fortunately, hunting them has decreased in recent decades. With no natural predators and drastically reduced instances of hunting, the seals should be increasing in numbers, but as an entirely ice-dependent species, climate change may severely affect them in the future.