Ross seals live on the pack ice of Antarctica. They are solitary creatures, with individuals typically observed all on their own. Because of their dispersed and isolated distribution, they are the least studied of all the Antarctic seals and population estimates vary greatly.
Ross seals are easy to identify because they look quite different from other Antarctic seals. They have small, wide heads, with large eyes (up to 7 cm in diameter), a small mouth and a short, broad snout. They also have the shortest hair of any seal species. And unlike other seals, whose coats are often spotted, Ross seals have a streaked pattern that runs down the neck and throat. Adults can grow up to 2.5 meters in length (with females being slightly longer than males) and reach a weight of up to 216 kg.
During an Antarctic cruise, you’ll often hear Ross seals before you see them. They produce a wide range of warbling and twittering calls, both when they are on the ice and underwater. They make these sounds with their mouths closed, without emitting any air. The calls can carry over extremely long distances. It’s not known for sure what these calls are used for, but it’s likely they serve to attract mates and warn off any potential threats.
The large eyes and needle-like teeth of Ross seals help them catch slippery prey—mainly squid and fish—in the dimly-lit depths of the ocean. Ross seals have been recorded making dives as deep as 792 meters, and can stay underwater for over 30 minutes. They have to be careful, however, as killer whales are believed to hunt Ross seals, although no such predation has ever been witnessed.
Ross seals don’t waste any time when it comes to rearing their offspring. Solitary females give birth on the ice in November or December. The pups are then nursed for just four weeks before weaning. Because Ross seals rely on the sea ice for reproducing, the continued reduction in sea ice due to climate warming is a threat to the health of the Ross Seal population.
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