The reproductive biology of seals is fascinating in many aspects. As in most mammals, the time of onset of puberty in seals is variable. Once sexually mature, most but not all seals are seasonally mono-oestrous, with highly synchronized breeding seasons. They have evolved as either terrestrial or aquatic copulators, although a few species mate in a variety of habitats. Their mating strategies are diverse, ranging from serial monogamy to extreme polygyny. Gestation in seals is characterized by an embryonic diapause, which is obligate in most species. Reactivation of the blastocyst is followed by a placental gestation. All species of seal require a terrestrial (including ice floes) habitat for parturition. Lactation differs between the two seal families: phocid seals have an intense period of maternal investment, during which the mothers fast; otariid seals have a prolonged lactation during which intense bouts of suckling are interspersed by days of separation from their pups while the mother forages at sea. Although the anatomy and functional morphology of seals has been well described, less is known of the endocrinology of reproduction. This is due mainly to the logistical difficulties that researchers experience in collecting serial samples from a species that is relatively difficult to handle. This article reviews the basic anatomy and physiology, and our current understanding of the comparative aspects of reproduction in seals. Reproductive behaviours as well as the influences of environmental factors, such as photoperiod, nutrition and xenobiotics, are also discussed.
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