Australian fur seal: cheeky, chunky, boof-head of the sea

Name(s): Australian fur seal (Arctocephalus pusillus doriferus), also known as Tasmanian fur seal

Size: Length: 1.4m (females) 2.1m (males), weight: 78kg (females) 220-360kg (males)

Diet: Carnivore (seafood, including fish and cephalopods like squid, octopus, and cuttlefish)

Habitat/range: Southeastern Australia, the Bass Strait, and waters surrounding lutruwita/Tasmania

Conversation status: IUCN Least Concern.

Superpower/fun fact: The Australian fur seal is the largest of all fur seals in the world: the big boof heads of the sea.

Photo of a group of australian fur seals riding a wave in the ocean.
Australian fur seals. Credit: Vincent Antony

Move over landlubbers, because marine mammals are set to take the 2023 AMOTY crown, and the Aussie fur seal is here to win!

The Australian fur seal (Arctocephalus pusillus doriferus) is the largest of all fur seal species. They are the “big boof-heads of the sea” and are common along the south coast of Australia and Tasmania. 

If staffies are the seals of the canine world, then Australian fur seals are the doggos of the marine mammals (they even bark!). Inside that big square head of theirs, the Aussie fur seal is intelligent and curious. Young seals are inquisitive and love to play together, a behaviour which helps to prepare them for a life at sea.

Recent years have shown that the intelligence of these cheeky animals can get the better of them. Adventurous seals have been recorded wandering on land, some as far as 30km inland! They also enjoy pestering the odd fisher or salmon farmer in the hopes of stealing a sneaky snack.

Close-up photo of an australian fur seal poking its head out from behind a rock.
Australian fur seal. Credit: Marcus Salton

These animals are a force to be reckoned with underwater, with streamlined bodies and powerful flippers that allow them to chase fish and surf waves. When in “stealth-mode”, they use their excellent underwater vision and vibrissae (whiskers) which they fan out like a radar to pick up the vibrations of their prey along rocky reefs. Despite their chunky appearance, Aussie fur seals are very capable on dry land and are experts at navigating rocky terrain and sea cliffs. They also breed in sea caves, which may have helped them survive the sealers of the 1800s.

The Aussie fur seal has a close cousin in the Cape or African fur seal (A. p. pusillus) found along the coast of Namibia and the west and south coasts of South Africa. They are both subspecies of brown fur seal, with the two species splitting from a common ancestor around 12,000 years ago. It seems the Aussie fur seal may even be on the move again. Climate impacts and changes in the marine environment appear to be sending them southward toward the waters and islands surrounding lutruwita/Tasmania. Australian fur seals are picky swimmers and prefer to stay in the shallower waters of the continental shelf, meaning they have the most restricted range of all fur seals in the world. 

Audio of Australian fur seals calling. Image of an Australian fur seal calling. Image and audio credit: Phillip Island Nature Parks

Our relationship with Australian fur seals has not always been one of admiration. After European colonisation, fur seals in Australia plummeted towards extinction. Because of their warm and fuzzy brown coats, the Aussie fur seal was intensely harvested for the fur trade. After the fur trade was stopped and efforts to protect this species were implemented the Australian fur seal population began to rebound, but they have never reached their historical, pre-European harvest levels. Today they face a number of impacts from a changing ocean including marine pollution, climate change, and shifting food webs. 

They play an important role in the ecosystem, keeping the food web healthy and adding a lot of nutrients to the water (yes, we mean poo). Come on folks, it’s time to show these sea doggos the love that they deserve. 

Photo of australian fur seal pups on rocks.
Australian fur seal pups. Credit: Marcus Salton

Voting for Australian Mammal of the Year 2023 is now open!

Visit our voting page here to learn more about the categories and to vote for your picks for Australian Mammal of the Year.

The Ultramarine project – focussing on research and innovation in our marine environments – is supported by Minderoo Foundation.

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