The Little Known "Leopards" of the Sea
by Noah Patton
Leopard seals like many other Antarctic species, are notoriously difficult to study due to their remote location and brief summer season where their home is accessible to researchers. Wildlife photographers and scientists have had extraordinary encounters with the species which occasionally exhibit inexplicable behaviours around humans. Photographer Paul Nicklen had an unusual encounter with a female leopard seal, which he outlines in the following video:
Leopard Seals, sometimes referred to as sea leopards, are named for their spotted fur coat. Like a leopard, they are extremely effective predatory carnivores. They are usually solitary animals that only encounter their own species to mate or defend their territories.
Leopard Seals are prey to the Killer Whale, and the seals themselves prey on nearly any smaller creature in their habitat. This can range from small fish like krill, to other species of seal and penguin. A seal captured near Sydney was found to have eaten an adult platypus.
Young leopard seals will focus on less substantial meals, usually krill, small birds or fish. The seals have adapted their rear molars to have small gaps that when gritted together can effectively sieve krill out of water. When they are older, they will focus primarily on ambush hunting utilizing their incredibly sharp canines. They wait underneath ice caps for penguins as they dive into the ocean, as soon as they hit the water the seal will strike before they are able to react.
Seals are extremely brutal hunters, once they have caught their prey it will wildly flail the animal into the surface of the ocean until it dies. It then will flail the prey around until it is broken into smaller pieces or the skin is torn off, making it edible. Often they will toy with their prey, chasing them when they are not even hungry.
Seals like dolphins are very vocal creatures underwater. Both the male and female of the species will produce calls underwater. These calls are all individual, males will produce bird-like trills and others will produce guttural moans. Less is known about females, except that they will produce calls to communicate with their cub or when they are approaching the mating season. Males will call during the mating season, but they are believed to also call to communicate their territory to other seals.
The Leopard seal is a very large predator – with sizes ranging from 2.4–3.5 m long and weighing between 200 to 600 kilograms (2)
From a conservation standpoint, due to their limited sub-polar distribution in the Antarctic, Leopard Seals may be at risk as polar ice caps diminish with global warming. In the wild, leopard seals can live up to 26 years old. (2)