|Description & Characteristics:
Antarctic Fur seals are found mainly on the sub-antarctic islands of South Georgia, South Shetland, South Orkney, and South Sandwich, though today they are regularly seen farther and farther south on the Antarctic Peninsula. These charismatic marine mammals have made a remarkable comeback. Killed throughout the 1800's for their dense short fibered fur that was made into ladies coats, sightings of Antarctic Fur seals in the early 1900's were extremely rare. However, with the rise of whaling and the ensuing superabundance of krill, Fur seal numbers have rebounded dramatically with some localities even experiencing problems of overpopulation.
Members of the group known as the Otarid or "eared" seals, Fur seals have a visible earflap. In facial appearance and manner they resemble large dogs. The males can reach 450 pounds and can be up to four times larger than the females. Adult males are silvery-gray with a thick mane and longer hair. Females are gray to brownish with creamy throats and chests. Antarctic Fur seals occur farther south than their slightly smaller relatives, the sub-Antarctic Fur seal (Arctocephalus tropicalis), with which it sometimes hybridizes. About 1 in 800 Fur seals are of the 'blonde' variety, with markedly yellow or cream-colored fur.
Fur seals on South Georgia feed mainly on krill while at Heard Island and at Macquarie Island, located north of the Antarctic Convergence, they feed mainly on fish, and some squid. In pursuit of prey, Fur seals usually dive to around 100 feet but can exceed 300 feet and remain submerged for up to five minutes. On land, they are able to bring their rear flippers under their body taking the bulk of their weight on their fore-flippers. This allows them much more agility and speed on land compared to Southern Elephant, Weddell and Crabeater seals.
Fur seals breed in male-dominated groups or 'harems', and males can be fiercely aggressive toward rivals and human intruders alike. Establishing territories through fighting with other males, dominant bulls will patrol a portion of a beach from the waters edge to the vegetation behind. They spend inordinate amounts of energy discouraging females from leaving their territory and fending off other males. Territorial bulls give off a strong sweet musk odor during the breeding season. Pups are born from late November to early January, weighing between 6 and 15 pounds at birth. They are weaned after four months.
Today Fur seals face threats from habitat loss, overfishing, oil spills and entanglement in fishing nets.
- Fur seal populations were decimated in the 19th century by British and American sealers who pursued them for their skins.
- It was the quest for new populations of Fur seals that led to much of the early exploration of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.
- Within four years of their discovery in 1819, over 320,000 Fur seal pelts were taken from the South Shetland Islands.
- Fur seals can use their flippers to propel themselves efficiently both in the sea and on land.
- Fur seals are the only eared seal in the Antarctic.
- Fur Seals can be quite aggressive and it is wise to give them a wide berth, especially during the mating season.