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What Are the Differences between Seals and Sea Lions?

By J.Gunsch
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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At first glance, especially to the untrained eye, it is hard to see any difference between seals and sea lions. Although these two animals look similar, however, there are big differences in their physical composition, social organization and even in their familial classification.

Despite their appearance, the two animals are not very closely related to one another. Seals are from the family Phocidae, while sea lions are from the family Otariidae. Sea lions are more closely related to walruses, even though it is far easier to differentiate the two by simply looking at them.

One of the biggest physical differences between sea lions and seals are their ears. In fact, as members of the order Pinniped, to which they both belong, they are termed either true seals or eared seals. Sea lions, the eared seals, have external ear flaps located on either side of their head covering the actual opening of the ear. Seals, on the other hand, do not have ear flaps. They have tiny holes on either side of their head through which they hear, but that are barely visible without close inspection.

Another major difference is in their flippers. Sea lions have large front flippers that help balance their heavy bodies. They also have back flippers that they can easily rotate when they are on land. These enable them to walk somewhat gracefully. Seals have far smaller front flippers that do not offer leverage or balance. Their rear flippers do not rotate, rendering them unable to walk gracefully on land at all. Rather, when they are out of the water, seals have to slither along in an extremely awkward manner.

The last and most significant difference between these animals is their social organization. Sea lions are gregarious and prefer to live in large groups usually of the same sex. Males and females tend to enjoy each other’s company most during mating season, beginning in early June. Seals are not as social, although females tend to gather in groups during mating season to protect themselves from competitive males looking to mate.

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Discussion Comments
By Glasshouse — On Aug 09, 2010

I would also like to point out another difference between the seal and sea lion. The male sea lion is larger than the female sea lion. The inverse is true for seals, with the female often outweighing the seal.

By PelesTears — On Aug 09, 2010

@ Somerset- It's not surprising that you spotted the Hawaiian monk seal on its own. They are one off the most primitive species of seal as well as one of the most solitary.

The Hawaiian monk seal, along with the Mediterranean monk seal, are one of the few species of seal choosing to live in warm water. The Caribbean monk seal enjoyed warm water as well, but biologists believe them to be extinct.

You should feel lucky that you actually saw a monk seal. Very few people will ever see on e in the wild. The monk seals population is declining at a rate of about ten percent per year, so they could easily be extinct within the next three to four decades.

By somerset — On Feb 07, 2008

This January while visiting the windward side of Oahu, I observed a monk seal beach by itself on this long, beautiful sandy beach. Apparently it is not uncommon for the seal to come there during the molting season. There were volunteers watching over the seal, to protect him from dogs and onlookers. Apparently there are only 1,200 Hawaiian monk seals in the wild, and their number is dwindling. It was interesting to see that the seal choose this place, since even though not extremely busy, still, there are daily activities going on there, such as swimming, walking, and kitesurfing.

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