One of the apex predators of its continent, the leopard seal stands in the Antarctica food chain in much the same position as the lion in Africa and the grizzly bear in North America. Like its distant counterparts, millions of years of evolution has articulated a predator to survive and thrive in its harsh habitat. With a long, slim body and large fore-flippers, the leopard seal is built for speed. It has a head larger than a grizzly bear’s and lion-like teeth set in jaws that when opened wide gape like a python’s. It is a mammal simply built to hunt. We bring you our wildlife of the week, the leopard seal, and five things you never knew about it:
Species: Hydrurga leptonyx
Status: (IUCN) Least Concern
Diet: Carnivore; crabeater seals and fur seals, also krill, penguins, fish and cephalopods
Size: 3–3.5 metres
Weight: Female – 450 kg, Male – 360 kg
Average lifespan: 26 years in the wild
Behaviour: Leopard seals are mainly solitary species, both at sea and on the ice. Groups are only ever formed by temporary mating pairs and by mother and pup pairs
Distribution: Antarctica; French Southern Territories; Heard Island and McDonald Islands; South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands; Macquarie Island; Tasmania; northern record at Heron Island, off the coast of Queensland, Australia
They’re quite the performers
During the breeding season, leopard seals can become extremely vocal. One scientist from Werner Herzog’s documentary Encounters at the End of the World compared the inorganic sound created by the seals to that of a Pink Floyd sound effect, or something otherworldly and cosmic. These psychedelic vocals are sung all night long, for months on end – creating spooky atmospheric rings that vent up from below the pack ice and into the scientists’ research huts. It is unclear as to what this act is for, as both male and females perform it; whether it is a mating call, or a song to warn off rivals.
Paul Nicklen, National Geographic photographer, experienced a one-on-one performance from one of these territorial pinnipeds. When he entered into the waters with a leopard seal – where experts had warned him of the dangers such an act could commence – the seal began to feed him penguins, follow him around, and put on a nonstop show. In an interview with National Geographic, Nicklen spoke of the predator playfully putting both his camera and his head into its mouth, before nurturing him. Perhaps assuming that he was just a “useless predator”, it focused on feeding the physically inferior Nicklen penguins for the four days that he dived in the area.
Pregnancy: A hole in one
For reproduction, the leopard seals come together in larger groups. The females will carry a pup for 11 months and then deliver it in a hole, on an ice floe, that they dig during pregnancy. This hole digging process can take several months to complete, all in preparation for the birth of the one-per-year pup.
They play with their food
Leopard seals have been known to sometimes “play” with penguins they do not intend to eat – although the enjoyment is rather one sided. When they have grown tired of eating, but still yearn to be entertained, leopard seals have been observed seeking out penguins and young seals to play “cat and mouse” with. They’re the bullies of the open water playground: As the penguin swims towards the shore, the seal will cut them off and chase them back towards the water. This will continue over and over again, until the penguin escapes, or succumbs to exhaustion. Scientists have speculated that this is distinctly for sport, or for younger, immature seals looking to sharpen up their hunting skills.
They are the only seals to feed on other seals
With the ability to swim up to 38km/h, leopard seals use this convenient attribute to hunt down other slower seals, namely unfortunate crabeater and fur seals. They pick them off in much the same fashion as they do with penguins, using the element of surprise. Appearing from seemingly nowhere, the seal grabs its prey with its huge jaws and begins thrashing it back and forth against the ground until they are dead.
Leopard seal pups leave home early
After being birthed in an ice hole, the leopard seal pups will be taught how to hunt krill, or larger marine animals in the Antarctic waters. Lactation typically lasts for one month, and the females take very good care of their young pups until they are able to care for themselves – males sexually mature after three years of age, and females at two years. Other animals don’t bother the offspring, but at times male leopard seals can show aggression towards them.
To see how playful and inquisitive leopard seals are, check out this incredible GoPro footage: