Jan 172010
photo provided courtesy of Sergey Gabdurakhmanov on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeLake Baikal, Russia
Favorite Fooddeepwater fish
Lengthup to 4.5 feet
Weightup to 200 pounds
StatusLeast Concern for Extinction
Threatspollution, overfishing

The Baikal seal is the only exclusively freshwater seal in the world, living in the cold waters of Lake Baikal in Russia. Being the only large predatory mammal in a giant lake has its advantages, especially in terms of food. Because of their ability to hold their breath for long stretches, Baikal seals dive for fish in the deeper regions of the massive lake and have heavy claws on their forepaws for keeping holes open in the winter ice.

Although Baikal seals resemble most other true seals in appearance, they are much more solitary and are generally monogamous when it comes to mating. Female Baikal seals have been shown to mature earlier when populations are reduced. This adaptation can give ailing populations a fighting chance at rebounding if more females are available to mate. Baikal seals also live longer than many seals, and lucky adults can reach 55 years old or more. The combination of these factors has helped to maintain populations above the threshold for conservation concern.

Baikal seals run into the problem of finding a place to raise their young on a lake that can freeze over completely in winter. In response, pregnant Baikal seals dig burrows called “snow caves” under the snow cover on the lake during the cold months. Pack ice on the lake’s surface is prone to buckling, and where the ice buckles, the snow piles higher, allowing space for a den. The snow cave allows a place for the mother protect her pup and have ready access to the cold waters under the ice without needing to dig or search for other openings. A single pup is born and raised in the snow cave for up to 10 weeks before it is strong enough to start hunting for its own food. Baikal seal pups are extremely cute, sporting soft white fur for several weeks before shedding it to reveal the characteristic gray coats of the adults.

Lake Baikal’s size and relative isolation in the wastes of Siberia has long protected the Baikal seal and scores of other animals found nowhere else on earth. However, industrial activity and human development have been on the rise in recent years and the lake is not immune from the horrors of pollution. The future is open.