Pagophilus – Harp seal

Named after the black, curved marking on their backs that resembles a harp!

The harp seal gets its name from the distinct harp- or wishbone-shaped markings on the back and sides of adults’ bodies, a feature that makes it easily identifiable amidst the icy landscapes it inhabits. They have a unique coloration that varies with their age and wetness. Adults have a pale grey coat that appears steel blue when wet, providing camouflage in the aquatic environment. Their tail and head are black, offering a stark contrast to the white of their front flippers and stomach. The characteristic harp-like markings, which give the species its common name, are a distinguishing feature of adult seals but are absent in juveniles and pups.

Reproductive behavior in harp seals is notable for the brief but intense nursing period. Females nurse their pups for approximately 12 days, during which the pups gain significant weight from their mother’s rich milk. After weaning, the pups must rely on their fat reserves for energy, as they are not yet capable of hunting. During this vulnerable period, they can lose up to 50% of their body weight. It is also during this time that the pups, known as “whitecoats” due to their initial fluffy white fur, molt and develop their silver-grey coat, marking their transition towards adolescence.

The diet of harp seals varies significantly from juveniles to adults, reflecting changes in their nutritional needs and hunting capabilities. Juvenile harp seals primarily feed on shrimp and other small crustaceans, which are easier to catch and digest. As they mature, their diet expands to include fish, crustaceans, and cephalopods, requiring more advanced hunting skills and deeper dives. Harp seals are known for their foraging efficiency, utilizing the abundant marine resources of their Arctic and North Atlantic habitats to sustain their populations.