PASSAU, Germany March 11, 2008 -- A warm winter is wreaking havoc on the young ring seal population in the Baltic Sea north of Germany, and observers fear that about 500 pups have already died in recent weeks.
The World Wildlife Federation, an international organization focusing on conservation work to protect endangered species and habitat, is ringing alarm bells.
"The situation is dire. It is entirely possible that in some regions not a single seal pup of the estimated 1,500 newborns will survive," the WWF Baltic Group spokeswoman in Stralsund, Germany, Cathrin Muenster, told ABC News.
Muenster explained that the ice cover is melting too quickly, forcing the baby seals into the water too early. "There they starve and die a painful death from the cold," she said. "You can call it 'game over' in some regions."
Antti Hallka, a seal expert with WWF Finland, said that because of the lack of ice some seal mothers had given birth on small islands or on the mainland, where predators will likely kill the pups.
Ring seals usually give birth on ice floes, where they build birth lairs and seal pups depend on maternal care for about 40 days, during which time they build up a thick layer of blubber.
The ring seal is an earless seal found in northern waters all over the world. The Baltic Sea subspecies, which numbers only about 7,000 to 10,000, is listed as an endangered species by the World Conservation Union.
The animal's coat is a light gray spotted with black, the spots often being surrounded with lighter ring markings, from which the animal gets its name.
Ring seals have a small head and small plump bodies. Their snouts are short and narrow.
About 180,000 ringed seals are estimated to have inhabited the Baltic in 1900. The population had been severely reduced by hunting and pollution but had been well on the road to recovery before this unusually warm winter.
The Baltic Sea has experienced the warmest winter in almost 300 years – since records began to be kept in 1720 — and ice packs have begun breaking up earlier than ever, destroying birthing lairs before the seal baby is able to forage on its own.
"This has global warming written all over," Ralph Kampwirth, WWF spokesman in Hamburg, Germany, told ABC News in a telephone interview. "We've been anticipating some bad news because of the warm winter. However, this is much worse than we had anticipated. Over the last two weeks alone some ice covers off the Estonian coast as big as 15 square miles have melted away. With ring seals requiring 90 days of ice covering to breed successfully, that means death is inevitable for the babies that were only just born."