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Leopard Seal

10 Leopard Seal Facts That May Surprise You

A fierce predator with an aggressive temper, feared by penguins and other Antarctic seals alike – meet the leopard seal. They can be easily identified by their dark grey bodies with their iconic black spots. This incredible pinniped, belonging to the earless seals, is not only perfectly adapted to its environment, but also highly intelligent.

  • Name - Leopard seal or sea leopard

  • Scientific name - Hydrurga Leptonyx

  • Type - Marine mammal

  • Diet - Birds, fish, penguins, cephalopods, krill and other seals

  • Lifespan - Up to 26 years

  • Habitat - Antarctica, subantarctic islands (near sea ice)

10 Leopard Seal Facts That May Surprise You

What makes leopard seals so special? If you are a penguin lover, you may be appalled by the hunting habits of this Antarctic predator. With a few perfectly set bites into the penguin, it rips off portions of flesh and devours them. But there is so much more about this pinniped that makes it one of the most interesting animals in Antarctica. On our expedition cruises, a sighting of leopard seals lazing on ice floes is always a highlight of the day. Read on and find out what makes these seals so special!

Leopard Seals Are the Third Largest Seal in the World

After elephant seals and walruses, leopard seals are the third largest seal in the world. Adult females tend to be on average 1.5 times larger than adult males, in some cases even twice as large. With a thick layer of blubber for insulation, they weigh up to 590kg (1,300 lbs.) and reach a length of up to 10m (30 feet). Their bodies are slender and elongated, giving them an iconic serpent-like look. And they’re also very fast! With their large fore flippers, which they use like propellers, they can reach speeds of up to 38km/h (24mph) underwater.

Leopard Seals Are the Third Largest Seal in the World

2. They Are Exceptionally Solitary Animals

Leopard seals are not social, and prefer to live and hunt in solitude. On rare occasions, you may see them in pairs or small groups, usually during the mating season. They are known to defend their territory and attack other leopard seals ferociously. Their solitary lifestyle makes them difficult to study. On your Antarctic expedition cruise, you may spot them lazing on an ice flow or swimming in the Southern Ocean near your ship or Zodiac boat.

3. Sometimes Leopard Seals Smile

Once you see the creepy grin of a leopard seal, you may be haunted by nightmares! The leopard seal’s mouth is curled upward and thus creates its unique smile. Once you see their sharp teeth, you may begin to fear their aggressive temper. While usually swimming in Antarctic waters, leopard seals occasionally come onto land. If you hear a growl, back up and get to safety, as this is the last warning before a seal will aggressively defend its space.

Sometimes Leopard Seals Smile

4. Leopard Seals Sing Underwater

Did you know that leopard seals can carry a tune? During the breeding season both males and females become vocal. Female leopard seals tend to sing only for a brief period, while their male counterparts keep singing for longer periods each day prior to and during the mating season. Their mating calls range from local to long-distance, which, given their solitary lifestyle, helps with finding a mate even far away. To research these seal songs, scientists place underwater microphones near their habitats around the pack ice. But how does it sound? We doubt leopard seal songs will make your favorite playlist, but imagine cricked-like trills, haunting moans and hooting.

5. Gestation for Leopard Seals Lasts 11 Months

November to February is breeding season for leopard seals in Antarctica. Female leopard seals reach sexual maturity at two to seven years, while male leopard seals mature at three to six years. The pregnancy period is around 240 days (approx. eight months), but can be extended to eleven months. Avoiding an inconvenient birth during the winter months, female leopard seals can delay the implantation of a fertilized egg (embryonic diapause), in order to birth their pups in spring or early summer. That way seal pups have a higher chance of surviving in the Antarctic environment. Usually females have a single pup per year, birthing them on sea ice or ice floes, and keeping them in small snow holes. This cuddly place on the Antarctic pack ice serves as a nursery and from there the little ones start exploring and learning to hunt.

Gestation for Leopard Seals Lasts 11 Months

6. Leopard Seals Have Few Natural Predators

While leopard seals prey on many other marine mammals, they do not have many natural predators in the wild. Commercially hunted in the past, nowadays the only natural predator is the killer whale (Orca). With few predators and a wide range of prey being part of their diets, they are able to adapt to food availability in their habitats and can live up to 26 years. Hence, their conservation level is of least concern.

7. They Have Been Known to Feed Humans

Leopard seals eat penguins and occasionally they are willing to share a meal! Paul Nicklen, a famous National Geographic photographer, experienced a highly unusual seal encounter on one of his trips to Antarctica. One leopard seal observed the lonely traveler in Antarctica, and thinking he may need food for survival, kept bringing him dead penguins. Deeming him useless to hunt and survive by himself, the female leopard seal also kept following him around, checking up on him and seemingly nurturing him.

8. Leopard Seals Can Also Be Dangerous

Not all human encounters with leopard seals have been as pleasant as Paul Nicklen’s experience. While attacks on people are generally rare, they can turn serious or even fatal. In 2003, a British marine biologist was attacked by a leopard seal and dragged underwater. As Paul Nicklen put it in an interview with National Geographic in 2014: When you get in the water with a wild animal, you’re essentially giving yourself to that animal because, as humans, we’re quite helpless and vulnerable in the water. You are at the seal’s mercy.

Leopard Seals Can Also Be Dangerous

9. They Have a Highly Diverse Diet

Leopard seals gorge on various species! Penguins, birds, fish, cephalopods and even warm-blooded prey, such as other marine mammals and seal species, are part of a leopard seal’s diet. When hunting penguins, leopard seals are quick to catch them underwater, or when they slip into the water off the sea ice. They even hunt large penguin species such as emperor penguins. And hunting is only part of the food acquisition process. For a more leisurely pace, the grooved teeth in their massive jaws are able to filter krill out of the sea.

10. Leopard Seals Sometimes Play With Their Food

Did you know that leopard seals do not only hunt to feed themselves? Leopard seals play with young seals and other prey, such as penguins. Chasing them to the shores, cutting them off halfway and back into the water, leopard seals can continue this game until their prey either gets out of its sight or succumbs to exhaustion. This apparent waste of the seal’s energy, without being part of their feeding ritual, is not all fun and games. Scientists assume that this helps young leopard seals to develop their hunting skill and helps keep adult leopard seals in shape.

FAQs

Are leopard seals friendly to humans?

With very few exceptions, close encounters with this species have not been pleasant for people. Some attacks on humans occurred in the past, including one fatality.

Are leopard seals faster than penguins?

The leopard seal’s diet includes penguins, and while penguins can swim up to 36km/h (22 mph), leopard seals can swim up to 38km/h (24mph).

How smart are leopard seals?

Leopard seals are highly intelligent, with different personalities.

What is special about leopard seals?

Leopard seals are the third largest seal in the world. Contrary to many other seal species, leopard seals are solitary animals and often aggressive toward other leopard seals. Orcas are their only natural predator in the wild.

Can I pet a seal?

No, it is not allowed to approach or touch wildlife. This is to keep you and the wildlife safe. Leopard seals will chase and possibly bite intruders.

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