Harbor Seal



  1. Harbor seals have a well-developed sense of hearing, especially in the water.
  2. Research shows that under water, harbor seals respond to sounds from 1 to 180 kHz with a peak sensitivity of 32 kHz.
  3. In the air, hearing ability is greatly reduced; harbor seals respond to sounds from 1 to 22.5 kHz, with a peak sensitivity of 12 kHz. (The average hearing range for humans is 0.02 to 20 kHz.)


  1. Harbor seals have large eyes. Their vision under water is better than a human's, but inferior on land. Lenses are enlarged and almost round, adapted for focusing on light that is refracted upon entering water. The lenses are not as well-adapted for sight in air.
  2. Harbor seals have large, round eyes that are adapted
    for sight in dark and murky water.

  3. Harbor seals' eyes are adapted for sight in dark and murky water.
    • Like the eyes of other pinnipeds, harbor seals' eyes contain high numbers of rod cells - photoreceptor cells that are sensitive to low light levels.
    • Harbor seals have a well-developed tapetum lucidum, a layer of reflecting plates behind the retina. These plates act as mirrors to reflect light back through the retina a second time, increasing the light-gathering ability of the rod cells. (The tapetum lucidum is the same structure that makes a cat's eyes appear to "glow" when reflecting light at night.)
    • Under water, the pupils dilate (expand) into a wide circle to let in as much light as possible. In bright light, the pupils constrict to a slit.
  4. Mucus continually washes over the eyes to protect them. Unlike most land mammals, pinnipeds lack a duct for draining eye fluids into the nasal passages. When a harbor seal is out of the water, mucus surrounding the eyes gives them a wet, "tear-rimmed" look.
  5. Good vision does not seem to be essential to harbor seal survival; scientists have found blind but otherwise healthy individuals, including mothers with pups, at sea.
  6. Harbor seals probably do not have color vision.


  1. A harbor seal uses its sensitive vibrissae to find food, especially in dark, deep waters, or at night. A substantial nerve system transmits tactile information from the vibrissae to the brain.
  2. Each vibrissa can move independently. Under water, a harbor seal thrusts its vibrissae to and fro in a sweeping movement by pushing its mobile upper lip in and out.
  3. Harbor seals use their sensitive vibrissae collectively in a sweeping
    movement and independently to sense their environment.

  4. Prey moving under water creates vibrations that the seal may detect with its vibrissae. Studies have shown that harbor seals are able to detect and follow the hydrodynamic wake of a miniature submarine by using their sensitive vibrissae to sense water movement. Hydrodynamic trail-following is probably a way for a seal to locate and catch fish in low visibility conditions.


  1. Little is known about a harbor seal's sense of taste.


  1. Researchers believe that harbor seals have an acute sense of smell on land. This sense may be important for mothers identifying their pups.