Under Construction May 2011


Phoca hispida


Length: less than 10mm, tips often broken off in phocidae (Mayer 1952) 30mm on juvenile sample (Adorjan and Kolenosky 1969), 8-12mm (ASM#1)  20-30mm (ASM #2)

Diameter Range: 160-175 microns (ASM#2)

Medullary Index: N/A

Medulla: None

Color: Sparsely distributed specks of brown under magnification

Scales: Closely spaced, generally parallel edges, margins can be smooth at tip and base but rough margins in the middle.  Sometimes scales don’t seem to change much in appearance along the length of the shaft.



Length: 2mm on a juvenile (Adorjan and Kolenosky 1969), 5mm (ASM#1), 5-7mm (ASM #2)

Diameter Range: 15-20 microns, sometimes up to 25 microns (ASM #2)

Medullary Index: N/A

Medulla: None

Color: Streaky pigment, but none at tip or base. (ASM #2)

Scales: Stacked crowns.  Frayed tips (ASM #2)

Macro Qualities: 4 – 5.5 feet long (Forsyth 1999). Rarely exceeding 5 feet long (USF&G 2008). Irregular creamy rings with dark centers.  Brown to blue-black coloration can occur also.  Silver belly.  Smallest of the pinnipeds of North America, can look rather like a small harbor seal.  Pups have soft crinkly white coat.  (Forsyth 1999) White wooly newborn lanugo shed at 2-3 weeks old (ADF&G 2008). Do the other earless seal pups look like that? Have dark spots and streaks that are continuous along back.  Pale buff colored rings on sides.  Basic color is gray back with black spots and a light belly.  Black spots are often ringed with light marks (ADF&G 2008). AMNH specimen number 90801 was a little yellowed from the tanning process, but other samples had hair fibers of black, white, or grey.  Black and white fibers in small rings typically seen (ASM#2).

Cultures: Yup’ik, Iñupiaq, Cup’ik.  Hunted by villages from Mekoryuk to Kaktovik (ADF&G 2008).

Notes: ASM #1 is from a seal fur coat identified by ADF&G biologist Gay Sheffield, ASM #2 is from the American Museum of Natural History collection 90801.  Earless seals (Phocidae) often have hairs with broken off distal tips.  Ringed seal are the only ice seal that makes a den or lair, which is of interest these days because of climate change, since the lairs cave in and the baby seals are exposed and often die.  Is this because their coat is not yet fully waterproof?  They are the smallest of the ice seals, and one of the smallest of all marine mammals.

Troubleshooting: Otariid seal guard hair has a medulla, while Phocid seal guard hair does not.  Differentiating between the Phocid seals under the microscope is difficult, with length and width measurements on guard hairs and underfur being in similar ranges for all the true seals in Alaska.  Scale patterns are similar, and none have medullas.  Ribbon and ringed seals often have distinct pelt markings.  The bearded seal fur may be special in that individual guard hairs tend to be widely spaced and the underfur curlier and denser than other seals, giving a less “smooth” flat fur look, but more investigation is needed to confirm this observation.

Range:  Coastal areas from the Bering Sea shores of the Aleutians northward (Forsyth 2009.)  Northern Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas.  Can range as far south as Bristol Bay and the Alaska Peninsula if there is sufficient sea ice.  Most common and widespread seal in the Arctic.  In winter, they tend to be abundant close to shore. (ADF&G 2008)  Listed as very rare in the Barrow area in Powell’s report to the Bureau of Ethnology from Point Barrow expedition 1881-83.

Names: Suborder/superfamily Pinnipedia (the pinnipeds) Family Phocidae (the phocids, or “earless seals”)  natchiq (Iñupiaq,) niknik (Yup’ik,) nayir (Cup’ig Nunivak Island people) (ADF&G 2008). Sometimes called Pusa hispida.  Called “kerosene seals” for rutting males in April and May who emit smelly scent from facial glands (ADF&G). “Ice seals” include ringed seals, ribbon seals, spotted seals and bearded seals.  These are also known as “hair seals” or “true seals” (ADF&G 2008).  Older references (John Murdoch 1880’s ) may call them phoca foetida.

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