Fur seals

Antarctic fur seal and friend in Garden Cove
Antarctic fur seal and friend in Garden Cove (Photo: Troy Metcalfe)
A tagged Antarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus gazella) poses for the cameraAntarctic fur seal mum with newborn pupAntarctic bull fur seal and weaners

Scientific name: Antarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus gazella) / sub-Antarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus tropicalis) / New Zealand fur seals (Arctocephalus forsteri)

Physical description and related species

Fur seals are the smallest seals. Closely related to sea lions, they able to walk on all fours. The common name of fur seal includes several species: Antarctic fur seals, sub-Antarctic fur seals and New Zealand fur seals.

Each have teeth, whiskers and thick fur, similar to the coat of a dog. Instead of having layers of fat like other seals, fur seals rely on their thick coat for warmth.

Adult males can weigh up to 200 kg, adult females weigh about 40 kg, and pups weigh between 3–7 kg at birth. Occasionally these seals are pale blonde.

Distribution and abundance

Fur seals breed on land. They are found mainly on sub-Antarctic islands south of the Antarctic convergence. This includes the South Orkney and South Shetland Islands, South Georgia, South Sandwich Islands, Bouvet Island, Iles Kerguelen, and Heard Island, with only three colonies (on Marion Island, Iles Crozet, and Macquarie Island) lying north of the convergence.

At Macquarie Island, all 3 species of fur seal can be found: Antarctic fur seals and sub-Antarctic fur seals which both breed there, as well as New Zealand fur seals which occur in large numbers but do not breed.

During the 18th through to the early 20th centuries, all fur seal populations on sub-Antarctic islands were decimated by the sealing industry for oil and skins. At some locations, entire populations were exterminated through these activities. After sealing ceased, populations recovered with the first pups born at Macquarie Island in 1955, and Heard Island in 1963. In the decades since, populations have been increasing at most breeding localities. 

Conservation status: least concern

Breeding

Unlike southern elephant seals and sub-Antarctic fur seals, female Antarctic fur seals are not gathered into harems. Females are gregarious and choose the best beach site on dry shingle. Males actively discourage females from moving to other territories.

Male Antarctic fur seals establish territories through fighting with other males. The dominant bulls control a portion of a beach from the waters edge to the vegetation behind. Territorial bulls give off a strong sweet musk odour during the breeding season.

Pups are born from late-November to early-January and are suckled for about 4 months.

Diet and feeding

These active seals are very successful at finding concentrations of food, some of them visiting Antarctica to feed on krill. Fur seals at South Georgia feed mainly on krill while at Heard Island and at Macquarie Island they feed mainly on fish, and some squid.

Female fur seals forage close to the islands while caring for their young. Male fur seals have no parental responsibility and forage significantly further afield. At South Georgia, females dive to around 30 m but can exceed 100 m, remaining submerged for 2–5 minutes.