This Seal’s a Stud
Boston, meet Commander. The 7-foot-long, 11-year-old northern fur seal recently made his way from Seattle to the New England Aquarium, where scientists hope he’ll hit it off with his female counterparts and sire a few pups.
Commander is a rare sight. One of nine such animals across all the aquariums and zoos in the U.S., he stands out as the one male who’s old enough and big enough to put the moves on Ursula, the aquarium’s only reproductively viable female. As a species, northern fur seals are “incredibly underrepresented,” says Patty Schilling, one of the aquarium’s senior marine mammal trainers.
Mankind hasn’t made life easy for northern fur seals, whose natural habitat is in the Pribilof Islands, a few hundred miles off the coast of Alaska. The seals’ impressive pelts—they have one of the thickest coats in the animal kingdom, with an astonishing 300,000 hairs per square inch—were a lucrative target for hunters and trappers. By some estimates, it took only a few years for the revenue generated from the northern fur seal pelt trade to cover the cost of buying Alaska.
“They were hunted almost to the point of extinction,” Schilling says. “They were actually hunted all the way through the early 1980s, until that became illegal.” The seals’ population remains imperiled, and is declining by about 5 percent each year as overfishing and climate change trash their ecosystem.
If Commander and Ursula knock boots, they’ll be contributing much-needed genetic diversity to the existing population. Beyond that, their adorable seal pups will tug at our heartstrings, which Schilling hopes will boost conservation efforts.
But before sparks fly at the aquarium, Commander needs to pack on the pounds to prove to Ursula that he’s a prime partner capable of protecting his territory. To that end, he’s eating about 32 pounds of fish a day, or roughly 14,000 calories. During previous mating seasons, Commander has exceeded 500 pounds.
But even if he doesn’t plump up to a quarter ton, he has one natural advantage when it comes to earning Ursula’s affection: “He’s very handsome,” Schilling says with a laugh.