The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission


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Distribution and Habitat


Ringed seals occur throughout the Arctic, north to the pole. They are the only northern seal that can maintain breathing holes in thick sea ice (over 2 m in thickness) and this special ability allows them to have an extensive distribution in the Arctic and sub-Arctic and to thrive in areas where even other ice associated seals cannot reside.

RS Dist cropped for web

Distribution of ringed seals, with the distribution of the Arctic ringed seal (Phoca hispida hispida) in grey (after Rosing-Asvid 2010)

In the North Atlantic the ringed seal occurs in marine areas virtually everywhere where there is seasonal ice cover (Reeves 1998, Kelly et al. 2010b, Kovacs 2014). Their global distribution has expanded and contracted with changing sea‐ice cover, and today they inhabit all the seasonally ice‐covered seas of the Northern Hemisphere, as well as some fresh water lakes.

In the Western Atlantic they occur as far south as northern Newfoundland, northward to the pole and throughout the Canadian Arctic archipelago. They occur throughout Greenland, but are most abundant where fast ice occurs. Ringed seals occur around Svalbard and Franz Josef Land, and are occasionally encountered in the Faroe Islands and off northern Iceland. In the Eastern Atlantic, ringed seals inhabit the entire Eurasian Arctic coast, including the coastal waters of the White Sea and southeastern Barents Sea, the Gulf of Bothnia and the Baltic Sea. Freshwater populations of ringed seals occur in Lake Ladoga in Russia and Lake Saimaa in Finland (Sipilä and Hyvärinen 1998), as well as in Nettilling Lake in Nunavut, Canada.

Extralimital records extend far south on both sides of the Atlantic, to New Jersey in the west and to France and Portugal in the east (Ridoux et al. 1998). A young seal tagged in Brittany in France, was found one year later in a Greenland shark stomach off Iceland, showing that at least some of these, usually young, vagrants may actually have the navigational skills to return to normal habitat (Ridoux et al. 1998).


Habitat and Movements

The ringed seal is the most strongly ice-adapted/associated seal species. Throughout most of its range, it does not come ashore and uses sea ice as a substrate for resting, pupping, and moulting (e.g. Kelly et al. 2010a), coming out of the water exclusively on sea ice except in marginal seas and freshwater lakes where ice disappears seasonally.

Ringed seals occur in areas of landfast and drifting pack ice over virtually any water depth. While they may prefer areas of landfast ice for breeding, they may also breed successfully in areas of stable pack ice, such as Baffin Bay and the Greenland Sea. Unlike other northern seals such as harp and hooded seals, the ringed seal is completely adapted to ice-covered waters and does not migrate to open water areas in the winter (Reeves 1998).

Instead ringed seals are able to maintain several breathing holes in ice that may be over 2 m in thickness, using their strong sharp foreclaws and teeth to scratch through the ice. This allows them to thrive in areas where even other ice-associated seals cannot reside. During the summer ringed seals forage in areas of pack ice or open water, and may haul out on land where no ice is available.


FUgarte Disko 050812 093 foreclaws i DHA young ringed seal on the ice in Disko Bay, perhaps one year old. Note the already impressive sharp foreclaws. Photo: F. Ugarte

In the summer and fall, when land-fast ice is not available, ringed seals show considerable diversity in their distribution patterns (Kovacs 2014). Some animals remain in the general vicinity of their breeding sites while others disperse along coastlines, concentrating their time near glacier fronts, some spend time in open water far from the coast, and yet others move north to the southern edge of the permanent ice (e.g., Teilmann et al. 1999, Gjertz et al. 2000, Born et al. 2002, Freitas et al. 2008a). Ringed seals are more mobile and have larger 'home ranges' during the open-water season than at other times of the year (e.g., Born et al. 2004).

During the fast-ice seasons, each ringed seal uses several haul-out lairs and additional breathing holes within its home range and travels between them quite regularly. A seal’s lairs are usually only a few hundred meters apart, male’s lairs being spread over greater distances on average than those of females. During the reproductive season females spend more time on average out of the water than males and both sexes shift from hauling out during the night in early spring to hauling out during day-time hours in late spring, with more time spent on the surface during the latter period (Kelly and Quakenbush 1990, Carlens et al. 2006).

Whether ringed seals show fidelity to natal sites, or are faithful to breeding sites as adults, and whether this depends on the quality of the sites (predictable ice stability, sufficient snow to construct lairs, good food availability) or whether there are regional and subspecies differences is still unclear. Ringed seals show a high degree of spatial fidelity (territoriality) in the Baltic (Härkönen et al. 2008). Prime habitat for ringed seals may be used over long periods of time, but there are also reports that strongly suggest that there is considerable mobility among ringed seals in some areas (Kovacs 2014).

Ringed seals can travel significant distances, well over 1000 km (e.g., Kapel et al. 1998, Ridoux et al. 1998). However, satellite tracking studies show that individuals tagged at any one location display variable dispersal patterns, some individuals remaining local throughout the open-water season, while others move offshore or northward to the permanent pack-ice (e.g., Teilmann et al. 1999, Gjertz et al. 2000, Born et al. 2004).

The seasonality of ice cover strongly influences ringed seal movements, as well as foraging, reproductive behavior, and vulnerability to predation (Kelly et al. 2010b).