The leopard seal has gained the reputation as one of the most fearsome predators of the seas surrounding Antarctica – and for good reason. With only two predators themselves, leopard seals are close to the top of the food chain and are known as ferocious hunters. Here are the 10 most interesting facts about this fascinating and dangerous resident of the Southern Ocean.
1. The leopard seal shares its spots with its feline namesake
Also known as the sea leopard, it has several characteristics in common with the big cat. Although its coat is grey rather than golden, the black spots on its coat are responsible for its name.
2. It has a unique diet
Its favourite prey is warm-blooded, with leopard seals particularly partial to the various species of penguins that inhabit Antarctica and the subAntarctic islands where it lives. Unlike other members of the pinniped group of mammals, they feed upon other seals, including the smaller crabeater, Antarctic and Weddell seals also found in this region.
3. The leopard seal is the second largest species of seal
Female seals, which are larger than males, grow to an incredible 11.5 ft (3.5m) and weigh up to 1,000lbs (455 kg).
4. It has adapted to become a remarkable hunter
The claws along the edges of its front fins and its sharp, 1.5 inch (2.5cm) canine teeth grant it its status as one of the most feared predators in the seas surrounding Antarctica.
Its powerful jaws also enable the leopard seal to pluck fish and squid from the water and seabirds floating on the surface, while its long, thin body is streamlined to propel it through the water at speeds up to 25 mph (40 kph) in pursuit of its prey.
5. Leopard seals are ferocious, solitary animals
Not known for being particularly sociable animals, the only time these mammals are normally seen with others of the same species is between November and March when the breeding season leads to groups of leopard seals collecting on the sea-ice.
6. But they’re not quite the fiercest Antarctic predator
Although they are certainly formidable, leopard seals only have two known predators: killer whales and sharks. As a result, they can live up to 26 years – a reflection of their robust capacity to withstand the notoriously harsh conditions of Antarctica.
7. Scientists don’t really know why leopard seals “play” with their food
The leopard seal’s favourite types of penguin, which include gentoo, king and emperors, have more to fear than just a hungry leopard seal. Indeed, it has been known to cut off penguins’ routes back towards shore and engage in a game of “cat and mouse” as it chases its prey around the water.
Scientists are still unsure as to why exactly they do this, but believe it could likely be a way for younger animals to sharpen their hunting skills.
8. The leopard seal enjoys “singing”
During the austral summer, leopard seals are known to spend hours of each day singing beneath the waters. Hanging upside down and rocking from side to side, adult males have distinctive, stylized calls which they reproduce in unique sequences and which are believed to form part of their breeding behaviour.
9. And it can be very dangerous to humans
Although few serious interactions between leopard seals and humans have been recorded, in 2003 a biologist with the British Antarctic Survey was tragically dragged 200 ft. (61m) underwater to her death by a leopard seal.
10. But its behaviour can also surprise
In 2006, photographer Paul Nicklen for National Geographic was documenting leopard seals in the Antarctic and, rather than being attacked as he scuba dived around the animals, ended up being “nurtured” by a female who brought him live and then dead penguins. Nicklen believed the leopard seal viewed him as a “useless predator” and was attempting to help him learn to hunt.