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Seal senses are fascinating to study and provide invaluable information about their environment. Seals rely heavily on their sense of smell, sight, hearing, taste and touch for survival in the ocean.

In this article we will explore how seals use these five senses to survive in their aquatic habitat.

Marine mammal biologists have been studying seal senses for many years with a view to understanding how they interact with their environment. Through careful observation and research it has been determined that seals possess a heightened acute sensing ability when compared to other animals.

This is likely due to the need for seals to be able to detect predators and prey while in the dark depths of the ocean. We now know that each of the five senses play an important role in helping them live safely within their marine ecosystem.

Harbour seal
Harbor seal relaxing on a rock in Iceland

Sense Of Smell

The sense of smell is an essential part of the spatial navigation and prey tracking abilities in seals.

Studies have shown that harbor seals, for example, can detect odors from up to two kilometers away through their nostrils and upper respiratory tracts.

This remarkable ability not only helps them to locate food sources, but also allows them to identify other members of their species as well as predators or potential threats.

Groundbreaking research has revealed that some phocid seal species are able to distinguish between different types of odors even at a distance; this suggests that they possess a highly developed olfactory system with the capacity for complex odor recognition.

Furthermore, some evidence indicates that these animals may be capable of learning new smells over time, strengthening their survival capabilities in changing environments.

Sense Of Sight

The sense of sight in seals is highly specialized for underwater viewing. Seals are capable of seeing clearly up to a distance of 20 meters, allowing them to detect prey and predators at considerable distances. Additionally, due to the refraction of light when it passes through water, their vision can be slightly distorted compared to terrestrial mammals.

Seals have adapted several strategies to improve their underwater vision:

  1. They possess an extra layer of reflective cells behind the retina that helps re-absorb some wavelengths before they reach the photoreceptors;
  2. The lens has higher refractive index than human eyes which improves focus;
  3. A nictitating membrane protects the eye from debris and offers lubrication;
  4. A tapetum lucidum reflects more light onto its photoreceptors improving night vision by as much as four times what humans are capable of seeing without artificial lighting or technology.

In addition to these adaptations, seals also rely on echolocation (biosonar) for navigation and hunting purposes in murky waters where visibility is poor or nonexistent. Echolocation works by emitting sound waves and then interpreting echoes off objects close by so they can determine direction, size and shape of things near them even if they cannot see it with their own eyes.

Sense Of Hearing

Seal senses are highly developed and provide a wide range of information about their environment. Of particular interest to researchers is the sense of hearing, which enables seals to find food sources, navigate in dark waters, detect predators and communicate with other members of their species.

Seals rely heavily on low-frequency sound waves that can travel great distances underwater for sonar navigation and social communication. These sounds allow them to determine the exact location of prey or potential threats as well as identify conspecifics from far away.

By listening very carefully and using subtle vocalizations, they can also differentiate between individual members of their species. This has been particularly evident in studies involving pinnipeds such as elephant seals where different frequency ranges have been used by males and females during courtship rituals.

Additionally, some species use high frequencies when hunting in shallow waters to avoid detection by predators.

Sense Of Taste

Seal senses are highly developed and sophisticated. Seals rely heavily on their sense of taste during foraging behaviour, mating rituals and in the recognition of prey items.

Taste buds cover all parts of the seal’s body with concentrations around the head, lips, chin area and flippers. They possess a remarkably acute olfactory system that is used to detect odours, tastes and chemicals in the water column.

Additionally, seals have shown an ability to discriminate between different types of food using chemical cues detected through taste buds located on their tongues or oral cavity.

In terms of their diet preferences, seals show a preference for fish over crustaceans or other invertebrates when given a choice. This has been attributed to the sharper taste sensation associated with these foods which they can more easily identify as edible sources of nutrition.

Furthermore, research suggests that seals may be able to distinguish subtle differences in flavour profiles within species based solely on taste sensations rather than visual cues alone. As such, this heightened sense of taste allows them to make quick decisions about potential meal choices while out at sea where vision becomes limited due to murky waters or poor light conditions.

In summary, it appears that seal senses are well-developed and allow them to effectively find suitable food sources while also aiding in navigation and mate selection.

Sense Of Touch

The sense of touch is one of the most important senses for seals.

While a range of sensitivity has been observed, on average seals have an impressive ability to detect objects and pressure points as small as 2 millimeters in size.

Studies have even shown that when placed underwater, seal fur can register differences between two separate surfaces with 1 millimeter-wide grooves.

This extreme level of tactile sensitivity allows seals to interact with their environment without needing to rely heavily on vision or sound.

To further test their responsiveness to various stimuli, researchers used electroreception tests on gray seal pups where electrodes were attached to the whiskers and skin around their faces.

These tests showed that grey seal pups had the highest response rates at frequencies ranging from 10 Hz to 400 Hz, indicating robust tactile acuity over a wide variety of ranges.

The results suggest that these animals are highly sensitive to both low-frequency signals (such as currents) and high-frequency signals (like vibrations).

Thus, it appears that through their keen sense of touch, seals are able to gain valuable information about their environment and navigate accordingly.



The senses of seals have been studied extensively by marine mammal biologists, and it is clear that these animals are far better adapted to their environment than humans.

Seals possess a keen sense of smell, sight, hearing, taste and touch that help them navigate the ocean depths and find food sources.

Their heightened olfactory capabilities allow them to detect prey from long distances away; likewise, they can differentiate between different types of fish through their well-developed sense of taste.

Furthermore, their highly developed vision gives them an advantage when hunting in murky waters.

Lastly, seals rely heavily on their sensitive whiskers for detecting vibrations in order to locate potential threats or food sources.

Overall, it is evident that seals’ senses are perfectly fine-tuned to survive in the harsh underwater environment.

This knowledge serves as a reminder that although we may be much more intelligent than our aquatic counterparts, there will always remain aspects of nature which surpass human understanding.

As such, future research should continue to focus on further exploring seal senses and behavior so that we can gain a greater insight into this species’ remarkable adaptations and survival strategies within its natural habitat.