Species On The Move

As climate change impacts habitats around the world, species are on the move, trying to adapt — and survive.

About This Species

Ringed seals are the most common Arctic seal and are the preferred prey of polar bears. They have dark gray pelts with lighter gray rings and are the smallest of the Arctic seals.

Ringed seal climate change Arctic sea ice

As Arctic sea ice melts, ringed seals are in trouble. Credit: NOAA

Ringed seals' lives revolve around the ice. They use it for mating, birthing, rearing their pups. They haul out onto the ice for rests, and use their claws and flippers to dig breathing holes. They build snow dens on the ice to provide protection for their young, which also creates a microclimate to help keep them warm and minimize the energy they need to use during the coldest months. 

Source: IUCN

Conservation Status

In the United States, two ringed seal subspecies (Ladoga and Saimaa) are listed as endangered and the other two (Baltic and Okhotsk) are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reports that ringed seals in some regions of the Arctic are already seeing long-term declines in reproduction and pup survival.

Map Ringed Seal Arctic Sea Ice Projection NOAA
Source: NOAA and IUCN

Looking Forward

Ringed seals' lives are tied to the sea ice, which means their future is too. In December 2016, sea ice extent in the Arctic set record lows every day, continuing a pattern that began in November. At the same time, temperatures in parts of the Arctic were more than 3 degrees Fahrenheit above the average from 1981-2010.

Ringed Seal climate change Arctic

When ice breaks up early, ringed seals can get separated from their pups, with dire consequences. Credit: NOAA

In the spring—when nursing ringed seals haul out on the ice with their pups—the ice is breaking up earlier than usual. This can cause the mother and pups to be separated, leaving the pups exposed to the elements and to predators. Spring rains and warm temperatures can also cause lairs on the snow to collapse prematurely. The IUCN reports that ringed seals will have to shift their territory further north to follow the ice as it disappears in more southerly regions. Because of the role they play in the ecosystem, particularly as the primary prey for polar bears, the impact of their loss is expected to have ripple effects throughout the region.

Source: NSDIC, IUCN

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