Arctocephalus – Southern fur seals

All fur seals enjoy swimming on their backs, making a classic 'jug-handle' position

The Southern Fur Seals are a group of pinnipeds known for their dense underfur and distinctive appearance, which has earned them the name “bear-headed” from the Greek words “arctos” (bear) and “kephale” (head).

These seals are notable for their layered pelage, which consists of a thick underfur that provides insulation in the cold southern waters they inhabit. This underfur extends beyond the flippers, covering part of the metacarpals, a characteristic that differentiates them from their Northern counterparts, whose fur typically ends at the base of the flippers. The dense fur was once the cause of extensive hunting, drastically reducing their numbers.

Males of the species exhibit considerable size and strength, making them challenging to study in the wild. Their ferocity, especially during the breeding season, underscores the challenges researchers face when attempting to gather data on these animals. Consequently, much of the scientific knowledge about Southern Fur Seals comes from studies on pregnant females and juveniles, which are more accessible and less dangerous to approach.

Southern Fur Seals are opportunistic feeders with a diet that encompasses a wide range of marine organisms. They primarily consume small fish, squid, and krill, but they are also known to prey on seabirds and even penguins. Their foraging behavior reflects the abundant and diverse food resources available in the Southern Ocean, with seals often diving deep to capture prey in the pelagic zone.

The 18th and 19th centuries marked a dark period for Southern Fur Seals, as they were hunted to near extinction for their valuable pelts. The demand for fur led to the decimation of entire colonies, severely impacting their populations across the Southern Hemisphere. However, the implementation of conservation measures and international agreements to protect marine mammals has significantly contributed to the recovery of Southern Fur Seal populations in recent decades.