There are 34 species of seals and sea lions globally, and I have been lucky to study many of these and have been on many seal watching tours. It is pretty tricky to tell the difference between seals as most are similar colours and shapes. However, there are two subfamilies of seals, and it is pretty easy to tell these apart.
Fur seals are also known as eared seals and differ from true seals, which don’t have ear flaps. By thinking of fur seals as eared seals and true seals as earless seals, it is easier to determine the seal species.
There are several other differences between fur seals and true seals. Sea lions are in the same family as fur seals, so let’s look at the differences.
Fur seals are known as eared seals as they have external ear flaps which are long and lie low on the head. Fur seals are part of the family Orariidae, along with sea lions.
Fur seals are different to true seals in their movement. Fur seals can walk or run with their limbs tucked below the body. They have long, bent fore flippers, and unlike true seals, they can point their hind flippers forward, rotating them under the body. Fur seals can raise their bodies, and they have sharp nails.
Fur seals have a double layer of fur, and unlike the dog-like face of a sea lion, fur seals look more like an otter with a pointed, longer face.
Females are darker in colour and lighter than males, who are much larger and have sandier coats with a larger mane.
There are nine species of fur seal:
- Australian fur seal
- Brown fur seal
- Galapagos fur seal
- Guadalupe fur seal
- Juan Fernandez fur seal
- New Zealand fur seal
- Northern fur seal
- South American fur seal
- Subantarctic fur seal
Difference between fur seals and sea lions
Sea lions are in the same family as fur seals but are in a different subfamily. Sea lions are members of the Oariinae subfamily, while fur seals are the Arctocephalinae subfamily. Although both members of the Otarariidae family, there are several differences between them.
Because they are both in the same family, let’s look at their differences before we look at the difference between fur seals and true seals.
Sea lions are generally larger than fur seals. Sea lions have ear flaps, but they are longer and lower on true seals’ heads. Sea lions have a face that is dog-shaped, with a broad nose. Telling a sea lion apart from a fur seal because of their ear flaps is much harder than telling them apart from a true seal.
Sea lions only have one layer of fur compared to the double layer found on a fur seal. Sea lions can often be found nearer the coast while resting on sand than fur seals which prefer laying on rocks.
Sea lions are much noisier than most other seals and can be heard barking from a distance. Sea lions have much larger front flippers than seals do. They are covered in thick skin, whereas seal flippers are webbed.
There are six species of sea lion:
- Australian sea lion
- California sea lion
- Galapagos sea lion
- New Zealand sea lion
- South American sea lion
- Steller’s sea lion
Difference between fur seals and true seals
True seals are members of the Phocidae family and are often called earless seals. They are semi-aquatic mammals and spend much of their time in the water. They are excellent divers and swimmers and can reach considerable depths. Some seals, such as the elephant seal, can dive for over one hour. They slow their heart rate down to beats of just four or five beats per minute to be able to do this.
True seals swim with their strong hindlimbs, which they move from side to side to propel themselves forward. While on land, they cannot rotate these forwards, one of the differences between earless seals and fur seals.
True seals do not have ear flaps, unlike fur seals with a long flap. They can hear, however, and have a small ear canal. When viewing seals on land, it is quite apparent which are fur seals and true seals from the ear flaps or lack thereof.
True seals are divided into two groups. These are true seals from the Northern Hemisphere and monk seals and true seals from the Southern Hemisphere.
While all species of seals are different, several earless seals can easily be told apart. The harp seal is white with a black harp pattern on the back, and the ribbon seal is coloured with black and white rings, although females are usually brown with pale rings.
When comparing species of seals, it is often difficult as many are similar. To tell the difference between a fur seal and a true seal is relatively easy; all you need to do is look for the ear flap. However, the ear flap can be challenging to see when a seal is swimming, so the overall size, facial appearance, fur colouring and pattern, and the behaviour are key to telling the difference.
There are nineteen species of true seals:
- Mediterranean seal
- Hawaiian monk seal
- Caribbean monk seal
- Northern elephant seal
- Ross seal
- Crabeater seal
- Leopard seal
- Weddell seal
- Hooded seal
- Bearded seal
- Harbor seal
- Spotted seal
- Ringed seal
- Baikal seal
- Caspian seal
- Harp seal
- Ribbon seal
- Grey seal