Fur Seal Species

Fur seals are exceptional swimmers, but they can also move well on land. These marine mammals are relatively small seals that belong to the Otariidae family. Seals in this family, which also includes sea lions, have visible ear flaps and are able to turn their hind flippers forward so they can move about as easily on land as they do on the water. Fur seals spend a large number of their lives in the water, often only going onto land during their breeding season.

In the following slides, you can learn about the eight species of fur seals, starting with the species you'd most likely see in U.S. waters. This list of fur seal species is taken from the taxonomy list compiled by the Society for Marine Mammalogy.

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Northern Fur Seal

Northern Fur Seals
John Borthwick / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images

Northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus) live in the Pacific Ocean from the Bering Sea to Southern California and off central Japan. During the winter, these seals live in the ocean. In the summer, they breed on islands, with about three-quarters of the population of Northern fur seals breeding on the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea. Other rookeries include the Farallon Islands off San Francisco, CA. This on-land time only stretches to about 4 to 6 months before the seals go back to sea again. It is possible for a Northern fur seal pup to stay at sea for almost two years before it returns to land to breed for the first time. 

Northern fur seals were hunted for their pelts in the Pribilof Islands from 1780-1984. Now they are listed as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, although their population is thought to number around 1 million. 

Northern fur seals may grow to 6.6 feet in males and 4.3 feet in females. They weigh from 88 to 410 pounds. Like other fur seal species, male northern fur seals are larger than females. 

References and Further Information

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Cape Fur Seal

Cape Fur Seal
Sergio Pitamitz / Photographer's Choice RF / Getty Images

The Cape fur seal (Arctocephalus pusillus, also called the brown fur seal) is the largest fur seal species. Males reach lengths of about 7 feet and weights of over 600 pounds, while females are much smaller, reaching about 5.6 feet in length and 172 pounds in weight.

There are two subspecies of cape fur seal, which are nearly identical in appearance but live in different areas:

  • The cape or South African fur seal (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus), which is found on islands and the mainland of southern and southwestern Africa, and
  • the Australian fur seal (A. p. doriferus), which lives in waters off South Australia, tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales. 

Both of the subspecies were heavily exploited by hunters during the 1600s to 1800s. The Cape fur seals were not hunted as heavily and have been quicker to recover. Seal hunts of this subspecies continue in Namibia.

References and Further Information

  • Hofmeyr, G. & Gales, N. (IUCN SSC Pinniped Specialist Group) 2008. Arctocephalus pusillus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2014.3. Accessed March 23, 2015.
  • Seal Conservation Society. 2011. South African Fur Seal. Accessed March 23, 2015.
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South American Fur Seal

south american fur seal

South American fur seals live in both the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean off South America. They feed offshore, sometimes ranging hundreds of miles from land. They breed on land, usually in rocky coastlines, near cliffs or in sea caves. 

Like other fur seals, South American fur seals are sexually dimorphic, with males often much larger than females. Males can grow to about 5.9 feet in length and up to about 440 pounds in weight. Females reach lengths of 4.5 feet and weights of about 130 pounds. Females are also slightly lighter gray than males. 

References and Further Information

  • Campagna, C. (IUCN SSC Pinniped Specialist Group) 2008. Arctocephalus australis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2014.3 Accessed March 23, 2015
  • World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. South American Fur Seal. Accessed March 23, 2015.
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Galapagos Fur Seal

Galapagos Fur Seal
Michael Nolan / Robert Harding World Imagery / Getty Images

Galapagos fur seals (Arctocephalus galapagoensis) are the smallest eared seal species. They are found in the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador. Males are larger than females and can grow to about 5 feet in length and about 150 pounds in weight. Females grow to about 4.2 feet in length and can weigh up to about 60 pounds. 

In the 1800s, this species was hunted to near extinction by seal hunters and whalers. Ecuador enacted laws in the 1930s to protect these seals, and protection was increased in the 1950s with the establishment of the Galapagos National Park, which also includes a 40 nautical mile no-fishing zone around the Galapagos Islands. Today, the population has recovered from hunting but still faces threats because the species has such a small distribution and thus is vulnerable to El Nino events, climate change, oil spills and entanglement in fishing gear. 

References and Further Information

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Juan Fernandez Fur Seal

Juan Fernandez Fur Seal
Fred Bruemmer / Photolibrary / Getty Images

Juan Fernandez fur seals (Arctocephalus philippii) live off the coast of Chile on the Juan Fernandez and San Felix / San Ambrosio island groups. 

The Juan Fernandez fur seal has a limited diet which includes lanternfish (myctophid fish) and squid. While they don't seem to dive deeply for their prey, they often travel long distances (more than 300 miles) from their breeding colonies for food, which they usually pursue at night. 

Juan Fernandez fur seals were hunted heavily from the 1600s to 1800s for their fur, blubber, meat, and oil. They were considered extinct until 1965 and they were rediscovered. In 1978, they were protected by Chilean legislation. They are considered near threatened by the IUCN Red List.

References and Further Information

  • Aurioles, D. & Trillmich, F. (IUCN SSC Pinniped Specialist Group) 2008. Arctocephalus philippii. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2014.3. Accessed March 23, 2015.
  • Seal Conservation Society. 2011. Juan Fernandez Fur Seal. Accessed March 23, 2015.
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New Zealand Fur Seal

New Zealand Fur Seal / Westend61 / Getty Images
Westend61 / Getty Images

The New Zealand fur seal (Arctocephalus forsteri) is also known as Kekeno or the long-nosed fur seal. They are the most common seals in New Zealand and are also found in Australia. They are deep, long divers and can hold their breath for up to 11 minutes. When onshore, they prefer rocky shores and islands. 

These seals were nearly driven to extinction by hunting for their meat and pelts. They were initial hunted for food by Maori and then hunted extensively by Europeans in the 1700s and 1800s. The seals are protected today and populations are increasing. 

Male New Zealand fur seals are larger than females. They may grow to about 8 feet in length, while females grow to about 5 feet. They may weigh from 60 to over 300 pounds. 

References and Further Information

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Antarctic Fur Seal

The Antarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus gazella) has a wide distribution throughout waters in the Southern Ocean. This species has a grayish appearance due to its light-color guard hairs that cover its darker gray or brown undercoat. Males are larger than females and can grow up to 5.9 feet while females can be 4.6 in length. These seals can weigh from 88 to 440 pounds. 

Like other fur seal species, Antarctic fur seal populations were nearly decimated due to hunting for their pelts. Populations of this species are thought to be increasing. 

References and Further Information

  • Australian Antarctic Division. Antarctic Fur Seals. Accessed March 23, 2015.
  • Hofmeyr, G. 2014. Arctocephalus gazella. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2014.3. Accessed March 23, 2015.
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Subantarctic Fur Seal

Subantarctic Fur Seals
Brian Gratwicke, Flickr

The subantarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus tropicalis) is also known as the Amsterdam Island fur seal. These seals have a wide distribution in the Southern Hemisphere. During the breeding season, they breed on sub-Antarctic islands. They may also be found on mainland Antarctica, southern South America, southern Africa, Madagascar, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as islands off South America and Africa.

Even though they inhabit remote areas, these seals were hunted nearly too extinction in the 1700 and 1800s. Their population rapidly recovered after the demand for seal fur decreased. All breeding rookeries are now protected through designation as protected areas or parks. 

References and Further Information

  • ARKive. Subantarctic Fur Seal. Accessed March 23, 2015.
  • Hofmeyr, G. & Kovacs, K. (IUCN SSC Pinniped Specialist Group) 2008. Arctocephalus tropicalis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2014.3. Accessed March 23, 2015.
  • Jefferson, T.A., Leatherwood, S. and M.A. Webber. (Gray, 1872) - Subantarctic Fur Seal Marine Mammals of the World. Accessed March 23, 2015.
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Kennedy, Jennifer. "Fur Seal Species." ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/fur-seal-species-2291964. Kennedy, Jennifer. (2020, October 29). Fur Seal Species. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/fur-seal-species-2291964 Kennedy, Jennifer. "Fur Seal Species." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/fur-seal-species-2291964 (accessed March 30, 2023).