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February, 03, 2017

Why the Ringed Seal Does not Breathe Underwater and Why It Needs a Health Resort

Everyone knows that the Baikal ringed seal is the only mammal of Lake Baikal and its main endemic. However, ringed seals have some interesting abilities and peculiarities which we will gladly reveal to you.

Fact 1: The Seal from the Remote Past

Scientists claim that Baikal ringed seals have been living on the territory of Baikal since the tertiary period of the Cenozoic era, which is about 1.6 million years ago, and the mammal’s ancestors had lived in the northern seas of the Arctic Ocean shortly before. Another version tells that ringed seals got into Baikal through the Lena River that, as it is assumed, used to have an overflow stream from Baikal.

The ancestors of the modern ringed seal found that the conditions in Lake Baikal suited them and quickly adapted to the peculiarities of the ancient water reservoir, and then stayed to live there. The first references to the Baikal ringed seal can be found in the reports of the pioneers who came to Baikal in XVII century. Scientific description of the ringed seal was first performed during the Great Northern Expedition organized by the “Russian Columbus” - the traveler called Vitus Bering.

Fact 2: Ringed Seals Save the Baikal Cisco (Omul)

Ringed seals close the food chain of Lake Baikal; its only enemy, strange as it may seem, is the man. Despite its clumsy looks, a ringed seal may achieve a speed of 25 km per hour inside the water and still has the ability to swim into rivers and travel hundreds of kilometers.

The Baikal ringed seal is not just an extraordinary swimmer, but also a “well-equipped” underwater hunter. The animal’s large eyes provide it a catch even under bad light conditions. Diving to a depth of 300 meters, ringed seals withstand the pressure of 31 bar. The ringed seal feeds mainly on Baikal oilfishes and gudgeons, and in such amounts that one animal can eat more than a ton of these per year.

Thanks to its hunt, this agile animal has a huge impact not only on the fish fauna of the Lake, but on its entire ecosystem. For example, by eating at least 50 thousand tons of small and large Baikal oilfishes, ringed seals save thousands of tons of important inhabitants of Baikal from extinction: macroheptus, epischura and other crustaceans that would have been eaten by Baikal oilfishes. In turn, these small crustaceans are the basic food not only of Baikal oilfishes, but of the universally beloved omul (Baikal cisco) and other species of commercial fish. In this way the ringed seal provides the food for Baikal fishes and saves them from extinction.

Fact 3: The Ringed Seal is a Talented Constructor

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Ringed seals spend winters under the ice, scrapping special breathing holes in its mass. Each animal keeps several of such open breathing holes. Female ringed seals build real snow houses for themselves inside the ice ridges; in February-March their offsprings are born in these houses: the young ringed seals are called white-coat seals due to their yellowish-white color. 

 

The color is their main protection from predators (crows, foxes or wolves hunt the weak young seals) and makes the kids unnoticeable on the snow-white Baikal ice. A special microclimate is formed inside such shelters made by mother seals for their offsprings, where the temperature may reach 5 degrees Celsius above zero even in Siberian frosts with 20 degrees below zero outside.

The kids spend the first 4-5 weeks of their life here with their mother leaving the youngsters only at the time of her hunt. The cubs feed on fat mother’s milk (fat content of the milk is 50-60%) and grow from 3-5 kg (at birth) up to 20-30 kg over that time. At that, total weight of their bodies increases 7-9 times, and the mass of subcutaneous fat grows 22 times. Mother’s milk fat is accumulated under the kid’s skin, forming a kind of a fat “bag” on the body. This “bag” plays the same role as a sleeping bag for the man.

Fact 4: Ringed Seals Have Their Own Health Resorts

The lifestyle of ringed seals is not very versatile: after changing their coats on floating ice in May, seals disperse in search of food throughout the lake and do not make up any large aggregations during the period of summer and autumn. Males even prefer to spend the winter alone.

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However, all those who are seriously interested in Baikal know that Baikal ringed seals have a favorite place where you can see hundreds or thousands of them. This place is the small Ushkany Islands. Such coastal rookeries become a kind of health resorts or “recreation centers”: animals who need rest and rehabilitation often gather there. There may be the following reasons: unhealed wounds after the winter, changing of coats not finished in time or other health issues for ringed seals to come here and heal under the Baikal sunshine.

Fact 5: Ringed Seals Have Their Own Alarm Clock

As the matter of fact, ringed seals cannot breathe underwater. However, ringed seals may stay for up to 68 minutes underwater in experimental conditions in a large aquarium. In natural conditions Baikal ringed seals spend up to 20-25 minutes underwater – it is enough for them to get food or escape from danger.

Nevertheless, at the same time the ringed seal can sleep in the water; and it sleeps until the lungs run out of oxygen. The question is how can the animal sleep in the water, if it can only spend no more than 25 minutes underwater in its active state? The fact is that when the ringed seal sleeps, it consumes much less oxygen, for it is not moving. If you swim up close to the sleeping ringed seal, it won’t wake up, even if you touch it or turn it over in the water. So ringed seals can only be awakened by the lack of oxygen. That is the reliable alarm clock of ringed seals!

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