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Seals are in the family Phocidae and are considered “true” seals, unlike sea lions and fur seals which are in the family Otariidae and considered “eared” seals. Only true seals are found on the East Coast.
There are two main differences between seals and sea lions. First, sea lions have external ear flaps, while seals lack external ears. Second, sea lions are able to rotate their hind flippers which make them able to “walk” on land and be more agile. True seals are unable to rotate their hind flippers, so they inch along on their bellies when they are on land.
Cape Cod has four main seal species in the region. Two of those species, gray seals and harbor seals, are considered resident species and can be found year round. During the winter and spring months, harp seals and hooded seals can occasionally migrate to the Cape, with hooded seals being a rare sighting.
Here are some fun facts about each species:
Gray seals (Halichoerus grypus):
Harbor seals (Phoca vitulina):
Harp and Hooded seals are considered “ice seals” because they live up in the Arctic and give birth to their pups on ice. One problem that can be seen in these seals when they come to the area is ingestion of sand and rocks. In the Arctic, the seals will eat the ice that is underneath them, however, in this area there is not a lot of ice which can lead to them eating rocks and sand. This is thought to be a stress response, but it has not been verified.
Harp seals (Pagophilus groenlandicus):
Hooded seals (Cystophora cristata):
Seals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act which recommends staying at least 150 feet away. The law makes it illegal to hunt, feed, disturb, or otherwise harass any marine mammal.
It is also important to remember that seals are wild animals. All seals have sharp teeth and claws; they also can carry diseases that are transmittable to both pets and human. DO NOT approach them or push them back into the water!
It is common for seals to haul out on land, either by themselves or in a group, to rest. Some other things to keep in mind when you see seals hauled out: It is not necessary for seals to be wet and they can go for days without eating.
Allison Hardman is currently an intern with the IFAW Marine Mammal Rescue and Research team based at IFAW headquarters. Allison has interned with several stranding organizations from Maine to Virginia rescuing stranded animals, providing care at rehabilitation facilities, and participating in outreach events and research initiatives. At IFAW she assists the team with responses to live dolphins and seals and data collection from dead stranded animals.
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