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What is a Seal?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The term “seal” is often used to refer generally to pinnipeds, members of a superfamily of mammals by the same name. It is also used specifically to refer to the so-called “true seals” in the family Phocidae. The defining characteristic of a seal is that it is a mammal with flippers, adapted to an aquatic life, and capable of survival both in and outside of the water, unlike dolphins, another group of flippered mammal which you may be familiar with.

All pinnipeds have sleek, muscular bodies which are designed for swimming, and they are also carnivorous. Many have powerful teeth and jaws adapted to make them formidable hunters, and they are also extremely fast, powerful swimmers, able to pursue prey across extended distances. A seal is also capable of remaining underwater for up to two hours without needing fresh air, thanks to the amazing oxygen conservation abilities of pinnipeds.

True seals spend most of their life in the water, and they tend to be very awkward on land. They communicate by grunting and slapping the water, and their rear flippers are more developed than their fore flippers. In the water, true seals move very sinuously, revealing themselves as animals well used to the marine environment. Eared seals, on the other hand, have more developed front flippers, and they are comfortable navigating on land as well as in the water. They are also very vocal; sea lions are one example of eared seals.

The walrus is also considered a pinniped. Walruses are distinguished by their massive bodies and formidable tusks, and they are particularly fond of shellfish. The walrus was once a widespread pinniped, but it is not restricted primarily to the arctic regions of the world. Walruses also have a very unique feeding technique which allows them to crush shells in their mouths, suck out the usable flesh inside, and spit out the remainder, almost like they are vacuuming out the shell.

When you see a performing seal, you are actually looking at a sea lion, a member of the eared seal group. True seals cannot perform the tricks associated with seals in zoos and circuses, as they lack the large front flippers needed to navigate with confidence on land. The seals along the seashore are also not true seals, as you can tell by their vocalizations and well developed front flippers.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon192356 — On Jul 01, 2011

I need to find some more information about seals for a report that I'm doing in school. Anyone have any additional information that I could use? i am apaika.

By CellMania — On Nov 11, 2010

@christym: The seal’s long whiskers help them to detect vibrations while they are underwater. They can close their nostrils while swimming.

Seals have only breeding cycle per year and they have what is called delayed implantation. That means that the embryo is dormant for 2 to 3 months before it implants and continues to develop.

Seals have more blood for their body size than any other land animal. A group of seals is called a pod or a herd.

By GardenTurtle — On Nov 11, 2010

@christym: Seals are very fascinating creatures. My colleagues and I had the opportunity to visit the Sea Lab in Dauphin Island and learned a lot about our aquatic friends.

Male gray seals can grow up to ten feet long and the females are between seven to seven and a half feet. Male seals are also darker in color than the females. The average lifespan of a seal is between 30 and 40 years.

Seals mate on ice or land. There are 18 different species of seals. The largest seal is the Elephant seal, weighing in at around 5,000 pounds. A seal’s milk is high in fat (40% to 50%), so their babies quickly grow and gain weight.

By christym — On Nov 11, 2010

I need to find some more information about seals for a report that I'm doing in school. Anyone have any additional information that I could use?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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