Seals and sea lions belong to a group of marine mammals called pinnipeds, which means fin or flipper-footed. These animals live in the ocean, but are able to come on land for long periods of time. Some species have evolved the ability to hold their breath for up to two hours and dive to depths of more than 6,500 feet when looking for food.
There are two families of pinnipeds: Phocids and Otariids. Phocids are also known as earless seals or “true” seals. They have ear holes, but no external ear flaps. They also have small front flippers and move on land by flopping along on their bellies. At sea, these seals move their rear flippers back and forth like a fish's tail to propel themselves through the water. Phocids include the harbor seal and Hawaiian monk seal.
Otariids, also known as eared seals, include sea lions and fur seals such as the Steller sea lion and the northern fur seal. Unlike true seals, they have external ear flaps. Their front flippers are large, and on land, they are able to bring all four flippers underneath their bodies and walk on them. Otariids propel themselves in the water by paddling their front flippers and using their rear flippers to steer.
All seals and sea lions are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and some are also listed under the Endangered Species Act. Together with our partners, we work to study, protect, and conserve these unique marine mammals and their habitats.
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