Description & Characteristics:
Considered the most ferocious seal in the Antarctic, Leopard seals are found among the pack ice in summer and on the more northerly sub-Antarctic islands in winter. The only seal to prey on other seal species, there are many tales from early explorers about harrowing encounters with Leopard seals. However, although attacks by ‘sea leopards’ on humans have been documented, most of the stories are just folklore. That said, present-day Antarctic scientists know enough to keep their distance from this seal’s formidable jaws.
Leopard seals have a muscular, somewhat reptilian head, with a sinuous neck, highly arched back and long powerful flippers. The body is dark grey above and light grey below and they have white throats with black spots. These distinctive spots are what give the Leopard seal its name. As one might expect, Leopard seals have impressively long, sharp teeth which are well-adapted for cutting and tearing the flesh of prey. Their streamlined bodies are built for speed and power; their smooth, impermiable skin allowing them to easily slice through the water on pursuit dives. These characteristics combined with excellent sight and smell have established Leopard seals as one of the consummate predators of the Antarctic.
Leopard seals’ main source of food is penguins and they can often be seen cruising in the vicinity of Adelie, Chinstrap, and Gentoo colonies. Typically, they will lie in wait by an icy ledge or rock outcrop, pouncing on the first penguin to dive into the water. Leopards will also hunt fish, squid and krill, and occasionally other seals like the Crabeater seal.
Scientists still have much to learn about the reproductive behaviors of Leopard seals due to the difficulty of monitoring breeding sites on the shifting pack ice of the Antarctic. Solitary animals, by nature, Leopard seals come on land only during the breeding season and then only in pairs or small groups. Females dig a hole in the ice early in the austral summer where they give birth to single pup after a 9 month gestation. The female protects the pups until they can take care of themselves.
Leopard seals may live for 26 years or more. Their only known natural predator is the Killer Whale.