American Oceans

What’s the Difference Between a Seal & a Sea Lion?

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between seals and sea lions? As similar as they are, they are not the same thing, and the terms seal and sea lion are not synonymous with each other.

four seals sitting on top of a large rock

Seals and sea lions are actually different creatures, with varying characteristics and behavioral traits. So, what’s the difference? 

Seals vs Sea Lions

All seals, sea lions, and walruses are considered pinnipeds, but some seals and sea lions are in different taxonomic families due to their varying anatomical features.

For instance, fur seals and sea lions are both part of the family Otariidae, whereas true seals are part of the family Phocidae. 

The most notable differences in seals and sea lions are the ear flaps and the flippers. In addition to this, sea lions are considered very noisy and vocal creatures, whereas seals are generally more relaxed and quieter. 

The easiest way to tell seals and sea lions apart is by the ears. Sea lions have external ears that protrude from their heads, and look like little ear flaps. On the other hand, seals have no external flaps, but instead have ear holes.

This is why many scientists refer to species in the Otariidae family as eared seals, and those in the Phocidae family as earless seals.

Another contrast between sea lions and seals is that sea lions are incredibly noisy. They love the sound of their own voices, and communicate very loudly with barking and bellowing noises.

This is often because sea lions congregate on land in large groups, and are very social creatures. When it comes to seals, they communicate much more quietly, softly grunting and groaning instead.

a group of sea lions swimming

Seals spend a lot more time in the water and are not as social as sea lions. Sea Lions tend to spend a lot of time on land versus in the water, and have adapted to life on land.

There are also some stark differences when it comes to anatomy. For example, sea lions are equipped with long flippers, giving them much more mobility both in the water and out of the water.

These creatures are able to rotate their back flippers underneath their body and can then walk on land. Seals cannot do this, and instead have very short front flippers, meaning that they have to flop around on their bellies when on land, much like a worm or caterpillar. 

The length of the flippers also depicts how well these animals swim. For instance, seals with shorter front flippers use their back flippers like a fishtail to maneuver themselves in water, whereas sea lions use their long front flippers like oars to swim.

Which are Better Swimmers, Seals or Sea Lions?

Due to their body shape and short flippers, seals are better swimmers than sea lions. Seals are much more adapted to being in the water, and can swim for longer periods of time than seals.

As they have no visible ear flaps, short flippers and fish-like tails they are also more streamlined, and love being in the water much more than sea lions do.

In contrast, sea lions propel themselves through the water using their large front flippers, which is a little bit of a longer process than swimming like a fish, like seals do. 

Do sea lions kill seals?

Seals are not the natural prey of a sea lion. For the most part, sea lions are carnivores and will eat clams, crabs, fish, squid, and any other small creatures that they can find.

However, Steller Sea Lions are a much larger type of sea lions, and they have been known to kill and eat seals. 

Which is More Aggressive?

Both seals and sea lions are intelligent creatures, and can form social attachments and relationships with humans after a period of time.

However, if seals and sea lions are encountered on beaches, they are wild, and will become aggressive and defensive if approached. 

Generally speaking, seals are friendlier to humans and are less likely to attack, and sea lions can be a little more hostile.

However, it does depend on the seal. Many sea lions are accustomed to humans, with many being kept in zoos and wildlife parks, and are used to human interaction, making them very friendly. 

In addition, seals in the harbors of California have grown used to humans throwing them food, and so are not fearful or aggressive towards them.

However, it is important to note that sea lions are very large and wild animals, and so they can be unpredictable. It is best to leave both seals and sea lions well alone, and do not interfere with them if you come across them in their natural habitat. 

Are Seals Faster Than Sea Lions?

This depends on the particular environment, as seals are better adapted to live in the water than on land, and are better swimmers than sea lions, but they are pretty useless when onshore.

Seals are only able to flop around, and cannot move quickly on land at all. 

Sea lions can move easily on land, but are not as aquadynamic as seals, because their back flippers do not rotate, and they cannot use them as fins like seals do.

However, sea lions can swim quickly, and are capable of reaching speeds such as 21.6 kph, but they prefer to cruise at much slower speeds. 

Summary

To summarize, the main difference between sea lions and seals is that sea lions are considered eared seals, with small external ear flaps and long front flippers.

Sea lions are also generally much larger than seals, with bigger bodies that can stand up and walk on land. 

On the other hand, seals have typically smaller and chubbier looking bodies that are more aquadynamic than sea lions’.

Therefore, they have smaller fins, making them better swimmers, but they are unable to walk on land, and can only belly flop around when out of the water. 

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