I’m used to thinking of seals as cute, fuzzy animals that are fun to look at and don’t really pose any threat to people. This is probably because most of the seal pictures that show up on the internet are those of adorable fluff-covered baby seals with huge black eyes that could melt glaciers. We should never forget, however, that seals are Carnivores, and can be quite the hunters. Today’s animal, the leopard seal, is one of the best hunters among seals, and should be regarded with respect.
Leopard seals live in and around Antarctica, though they will reside on sub-antarctic islands during the winter. They are much more comfortable in water than on land, and so spend much of their time in the ocean. This trait has made it difficult for scientists to survey leopard seal populations visually, and so acoustic surveys are usually used.
One reason these seals are so fearsome is their size. Male leopard seals can reach lengths of 3 m, while females can get to be 3.8 m, and weigh about 500 kg. They are the second largest seal in the Antarctic, losing out only to the southern elephant seal. They have dark grey backs and light undersides, and their bodies are covered with spots.
Leopard seals feed on different types of prey depending on their size. Smaller juveniles eat mostly krill, supplemented with some fish and squid. As the seals get older and larger, they start to seek out bigger prey, including a variety of penguins, and occasionally other seals. The canine teeth of leopard seals are a whopping 2.5 cm long. Orcas are the only predator in the Antarctic that outclass leopard seals.
Not a whole lot is known about leopard seal breeding in the wild, thanks to their remote habitat and habit of spending almost all their time in water. Male leopard seals do vocalize extensively around the breeding season, which is thought to serve to attract mates. Male seals each have their own specific calls, which evolve as the seals age.
After mating, females give birth to one pup, on ice floes around Antarctica. The females guard and nurse their pups for the next four weeks. At this point, the pups are weaned and females return to the water to breed again. The pups reach maturity around four years of age, but little else is known about their behaviour.
Leopard seals have been known to attack humans, though there has only been one recorded fatality due to a leopard seal attack. Still, these guys are huge, curious, and have giant teeth, so if you’re ever diving in the Antarctic, be vigilant. Or just don’t go diving in Antarctica, I hear it’s pretty cold there.
Cover image by Andrew Shiva, CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikipedia