Bearded seals, they grown on you

The bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus) gets its name from the long white whiskers on its face. These whiskers are very sensitive and are used to find food on the ocean bottom. Bearded seals inhabit circumpolar Arctic and sub-Arctic waters that are relatively shallow (primarily less than about 1,600 feet deep) and seasonally ice-covered. In U.S. waters, they are found off the coast of Alaska [1], which is where the specimen behind this blog post came from.


Bearded seals are closely associated with sea ice, particularly pack ice. As such, they are sensitive to changes in the environment that affect the annual timing and extent of sea ice formation and breakup. Fun fact, bearded seals can sleep vertically in open water with their heads on the water surface! Like all marine mammals, bearded seals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. [1]


Today, we share the chromosome-length genome assembly for the bearded seal. The draft assembly was generated by the DNA Zoo team from short insert-size PCR-free DNA-Seq data using w2rap-contigger (Clavijo et al. 2017), see (Dudchenko et al., 2018) for details. Work was performed under Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program (MMHSRP) Permit No. 18786-03 issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) under the authority of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and Endangered Species Act (ESA). The specimen used in this study was collected by Louis Binderman and provided by the National Marine Mammal Tissue Bank, which is maintained by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the NIST Biorepository, and which is operated under the direction of NMFS with the collaboration of USGS, USFWS, MMS, and NIST through the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program and the Alaska Marine Mammal Tissue Archival Project. We thank Ben Neely for his help with this sample!


This is the third earless seal genome (Phocidae) in the DNA Zoo collection after the harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) and the Northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris). We have already made an observation, that the earless seal genomes appear to be very similar to each other, see here. In support of this analysis, see below how the new earless seal genome assembly compares to the harbor seal genome. Once again, the genomes appear to be identical up to chromosome #2 in the harbor seal which appears as two separate chromosomes in the bearded seal (#4 & #1).

Whole genome alignment plot between the genome assemblies of the harbor seal (GSC_HSeal_1.0_HiC) and the bearded seal (Erignathus_barbatus_HiC).

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