Antarctic fur seal

March 27, 2012, 11:09 am
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Antarctic fur seal , South Orkney Islands, Antarctica. Source: Thomas O'Donnell

The Arctarctic fur seal (also Kerguelen fur seal; scientific name: Arctocephalus gazella) is one of 16 species of marine mammals in the family of Eared Seals which include sea lions and fur seals. Together with the families of True seals and Walruses, Eared seals form the group of marine mammals known as pinnipeds.

Eared seals differ from the true seals in having small external earflaps and hind flippers that can be turned to face forwards. Together with strong front flippers, this gives them extra mobility on land and an adult fur seal can move extremely fast across the beach if it has to. They also use their front flippers for swimming, whereas true seals use their hind flippers. Like other Eared seals, the male Antarctic fur seal is considerably larger than the female.

As with other fur seals, the Antarctic fur seal was long hunted for its skin and oil and was nearly exterminated. A small colony survived on Bird island, South Georgia where, today, large numbers of Antarctic fur seals breed.

caption Antarctic Fur Seal. Source: José Luis Orgeira/WoRMS/Encyclopedia of Life

Conservation Status

Scientific Classification

Kingdom: Animalia (Animals)
Phylum:--- Chordata
Class:------ Mammalia (Mammals)
Order:-------- Carnivora (Carnivores)
Family:-------- Otariidae (Eared Seals)
Genus:--------- Arctocephalus (Southern fur seals)
Species:-------- Arctocephalus gazella (Peters, 1875)

Common Names
Arctarctic fur seal
Kerguelen fur seal

Physical Description

Extreme sexual dimorphism is evident in Antarctic fur seal, with the males weighing between 60 and 120 kilograms (kg) and the females weighing between 30 and 51 kg. Adult males are one to two meters (m) long, whereas the females vary between .5 and 1 m. The adults are covered in a dense velvety underpelt, which is both waterproof and windproof, and an outer layer of coarse grey-brown hair. The males can be distinguished from the females by their long mane of shoulder fur. At birth, pups weigh between 4.5 and 6.5 kg and measure a length of between 60 and 73 cm. The pups have black wooly fur, which is retained for two to three months. The pups then display a silver-grey coat which lasts until adulthood.


In this polygynous mating system, a dominance hierarchy of males is established through the displays and fights that occur while defending territories. Some subordinate males are forced inland while others assume a completely aquatic lifestyle.

The breeding season of this species is from November to January. The males arrive earlier than the females to compete for territories, which will eventually hold a harem of 4-5 females. The competition is fierce and males don't feed while defending their territories on shore. Breeding incurs significant costs to the males of the species, which lose an average of 1.5 kg a day throughout the season. Females give birth to a single young approximately two days after arrival on shore. The females become sexually receptive six to eight days after giving birth and then begin mating.

During lactation, females spend three to five days feeding at sea to maintain their supply of milk. This period is followed by one or two days of nursing on shore. This cycle is repeated for four months. The lactation period is one of the shortest of all fur seals and is probably due to the harsh weather conditions and strong seasonality of the breeding area. While the female is away, the pup hides in a sheltered area. Both the mothers and the pups use vocalization as a means to relocate each other when the mothers return from the sea.


Males live up to 15 years, and females up to 23 years.


Antarctic fur seal is surprising agile on land, reaching speeds of 20 km/hr on smooth surfaces. It is quite probable that they reach even higher speeds in the water. Using time-depth recorders, the dives of several lactating females have been measured. The deepest dives average about 181 m and last almost five minutes.


The breeding range of Antarctic fur seal is primarily restricted to seasonally ice free islands south of the Antarctic Convergence, but individuals have been found as far north as Brazil. South Georgia is the site of the greatest concentration of Antarctic fur seals, particularly on Bird Island. It is estimated that 95% of the species breed near the coast of South Georgia. Other breeding locations include Bouvet Island, Crozet Islands, Heard Island, Kerguelen Islands, Macquarie Island, Marion Island, McDonald Islands, Prince Edward Islands, South Orkney Islands, South Sandwich Islands, and South Shetland Islands. The total population may be over four million.

Some adult males and juveniles stay ashore year round, but the direction of the female migrations in the Southern ocean are unknown.

Source: IUCN Redlist of Threatened Species


Though the species appears to be capable of traveling long distances over ice, it doesn't seem well adapted to such an environment. Breeding occurs on rocky beaches sheltered from the sea. The islands they inhabit commonly support lush grass growth inland. During the months of May and November, there is a general movement out to sea, but specific migration paths are unknown. Some adult males are found ashore or in the general area of the breeding islands year-around.

Food Habits

The main food of the Antarctic fur seal is krill, but individuals also consume squids and even birds. Nursing mothers are almost completely dependent on krill and the reproductive success of this species is, therefore, closely linked with the availability of this food resource. Antarctic fur seal mainly feed at night in the shallower waters of the ocean.

Conservation Status

This species almost became extinct in the 18th and 19th centuries due to intense commercial sealing for their fur. The population growth has now reached about 10% per annum due to increasing concern about their well-being. They are protected under the Convention for Conservation of Antarctic Seals (CCAS) and the Antarctic Treaty System. On a more local level they are protected by the legislation of each of the islands they inhabit. They have also been placed under Appendix II of CITES.

Economic Importance for Humans

Although the Antarctic fur seal is no longer of economic importance to humans, the species was heavily hunted throughout the 18th and 19th centuries for its fur. Commercial krill harvesting is now being developed in small countries and this move threatens to begin a battle between human interests and those of the Antarctic fur seal.

Further Reading

  • Arctocephalus gazella (Peters, 1875) Encyclopedia of Life (accessed April 3, 2009)
  • Arctocephalus gazella, Edwards, H., 2000, Animal Diversity Web (accessed April 3, 2009)
  • Antarctic Fur Seal, Catalogue of Life (accessed November 24, 2009)
  • Antarctic fur seal, Seal Conservation Society (accessed April 3, 2009)
  • Aurioles, D. & Trillmich, F. 2008. Arctocephalus gazella. In: IUCN 2010. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.4. 
  • The Pinnipeds: Seals, Sea Lions, and Walruses, Marianne Riedman, University of California Press, 1991 ISBN: 0520064984
  • Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, Bernd Wursig, Academic Press, 2002 ISBN: 0125513402
  • Marine Mammal Research: Conservation beyond Crisis, edited by John E. Reynolds III, William F. Perrin, Randall R. Reeves, Suzanne Montgomery and Timothy J. Ragen, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005 ISBN: 0801882559
  • Walker's Mammals of the World, Ronald M. Nowak, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999 ISBN: 0801857899
  • Antarctic fur seal, (accessed April 4, 2009)
  • Fur seals: maternal strategies on land and at sea , Gentry, R., G. Kooyman, Princeton University Press, 1986 ISBN: 0691084009
  • Behavior of pinnipeds, Renouf, D. , Spring, 2007, ISBN: 0412305402
  • Mammals of Australia, Strahan, R., Smithsonian, 1996 ISBN: 1560986735


Life, E. (2012). Antarctic fur seal. Retrieved from


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