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Hooded Seal (Cystophora cristata)


hooded seal
Hooded seal
(Cystophora cristata)
Credit: NOAA Fisheries

MMPA - Hooded seals, like all marine mammals, are protected under the MMPA

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Phocidae
Genus: Cystophora
Species: cristata

Species Description
Weight: males - 660 pounds (300 kg)
females - 440 pounds (200 kg)
Length: males - 8 feet (2.5 m)
females - 7 feet (2.2 m)
Appearance:  black heads and silver-gray coats with dark blotches, though as pups their coats are blue-gray; they are unique for their elastic bi-lobed nasal cavity, or "hood"
Lifespan: 30-35 years
Diet: crustaceans, squid, starfish, mussels, and fish (such as Greenland halibut, redfish, cod, capelin, and herring)
Behavior: unsocial, more aggressive and territorial than other seals

Adult hooded seals have black heads and silver-gray coats with dark blotches of varying sizes and shapes across their bodies. Pups are called "blue-backs" for their coat of blue-gray on their backs and whitish bellies; this coat is shed after 14 months of age when they molt.

Adult males measure around 8 feet (2.5 m) long and weigh about 660 pounds (300 kg). Adult females are noticeably smaller, measuring around 7 feet (2.2 m) in length and weighing about 440 pounds (200 kg).

The hooded seal is unique for the elastic bi-lobed nasal cavity, or "hood", that adult males can inflate and extend from the front of their face to the top of their head. Sexually mature males also have an elastic nasal septum, which, when inflated, resembles a pinkish red balloon, to attract females' attention during mating season and to display hostility towards other males.

The hooded seal is an unsocial species and is more aggressive and territorial than other seals, migrating and remaining alone for most of the year except during the mating season. Females mature in about 3-6 years and males in 5-7 years, when they begin their annual migratory cycle. They gather in the spring at their usual breeding grounds for 2-3 weeks and produce offspring, after which they linger in the area to molt before beginning their annual period of migration for the remainder of the year. Hooded seals live for about 30-35 years.

At birth, hooded seal pups measure about 3 feet (1 m) long and weight around 55 pounds (25 kg). Hooded seal pups are weaned between 3-5 days, the shortest time of any known mammal. Within the lactation period, the pup's body weight nearly doubles, increasing from about 50 pounds to 90 pounds (22 kg to 42 kg) in 4 days (Bowen, 1985). After they are weaned, pups begin to find food alone, mainly feeding on crustaceans, and improve their swimming and diving skills. There are limited data and observations on juvenile hooded seal available, because they appear to spend a great amount of time in the water and in remote areas (Kovacs, 2002).

Hooded seals usually dive for food to depths of about 325-1,950 feet (100-600 m) for 15 minutes, but have been found to dive to over 3,280 feet (1000 m) for up to an hour each time. Adult hooded seals feed on squid, starfish, mussels, and fish such as Greenland halibut, redfish, cod, capelin, and herring.

The known predators of hooded seals are polar bears and killer whales.

Hooded seals live on drifting pack ice and in deep waters. Some drift far away from their northern habitat towards much warmer regions every year, but they survive best in colder climates, as heat and constant sun exposure is harmful to them.

hooded seal range map
Hooded Seal Range Map
(click for larger view PDF)

Hooded seals inhabit the Arctic Ocean and the North Atlantic.

The four main breeding and molting grounds are:

  1. Gulf of St. Lawrence,
  2. off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador,
  3. Davis Strait, and
  4. Norwegian Sea, near Jan Mayen Island (Folkow & Blix, 1995).

They are abundant in these areas during the mating season, which begins in late winter and lasts through April, before dispersing for the summer and fall. Hooded seals are migratory and can wander long distances; they have occasionally been found as far south as Florida, California, and the Caribbean.

Population Trends
In 2005, surveys were conducted to assess population sizes in the main hooded seal habitats. The estimated number of hooded seal pups was 15,200 in Greenland and 116,900 in the Northwest Atlantic (ICES, 2006). Using this data, the total population of hooded seals was estimated to be 592,100. Between 2001 and 2005, mortality and serious injuries of hooded seals due to human actions were estimated to be about 5,200. Data on pup production over many years indicate that population size has been increasing since the 1980s, but not enough information is available to make reliable assertions of population growth.


  • heavily hunted, mainly by Norway, the Soviet Union, Canada, and Greenland
    • Adults were hunted for oil and leather (before the 1940s)
    • Pups were targeted for their beautiful blue back pelt. In the process, many mother seals protecting their pups were also killed.

Protection of hooded seals began when their population was visibly diminishing. Human-caused mortalities of hooded seals have declined dramatically since the implementation of protective measures in the 1980s.


  • illegal harvest still continues
  • bycatch, such as in lumpfish and groundfish gillnets in Canada

Conservation Efforts
Beginning in the 1960s, international cooperation between the main harvesting countries allowed the hooded seal population to recover after years of exploitation. The Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) This link is an external site., created in the 1970s, managed seal harvesting in international waters, began the licensing of sealers, and set quotas for allowable take. They also prohibited harvesting in defined regions and of blue-backs in all regions. In the early 1980s, the European Economic Community banned commercial harvesting of the hooded seal and importing of any seal products. The first Seal Management Plan was implemented in 1992.

Regulatory Overview
Like all other marine mammals, the hooded seal is protected under the Marine Mammals Protection Act of 1972.

Key Documents
(All documents are in PDF format.)

Title Federal Register Date
Stock Assessment Reports n/a various

More Information


  • Kovacs, K. M. (2002). Hooded seal Cystophora cristata. Pp. 580-582 in W. F. Perrin, B. Wursig, and J. G. M. Thiewissen, eds. Encyclopedia of marine mammals. Academic Press.
  • Bowen, W. D., O. T. Oftedal and D. J. Boness (1985). Birth to weaning in 4 days: Remarkable growth in the hooded seal, Cystophora cristata. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 63(12), 2841-2846.
  • Folkow, L.P., and A.S. Blix (1995). Distribution and diving behavior of hooded seals. Pp. 193-200 in A.S. Blix, S. Walloe, and Ø. Ulltang (Eds.). Whales, Seals, Fish and Man. Elsevier Science, Amsterdam.
  • ICES. 2006. Report of the Working Group on ICES/NAFO Working Group on Harp and Hooded Seals (WGHARP), 12-16 June 2006, ICES Headquarters. ICES CM 2006/ACFM:32. 28 pp.

Updated:November 26, 2012

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