7 Fascinating Leopard Seal Facts

The Cute Yet Deadly Leopard of the Sea

Adult leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx) on ice in Cierva Cove, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica, Southern Ocean, Polar Regions
Adult leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx) on ice in Cierva Cove, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica, Southern Ocean, Polar Regions. Michael Nolan / robertharding / Getty Images

If you get the opportunity to take an Antarctic cruise, you may be lucky enough to see a leopard seal in its natural habitat. The leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx) is an earless seal with leopard-spotted fur. Like its feline namesake, the seal is a powerful predator high on the food chain. The only animal that hunts leopard seals is the killer whale.

Leopard seals live in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic waters of the Ross Sea, Antarctic Peninsula, Weddell Sea, South Georgia, and Falkland Islands. Sometimes they are found along the southern coasts of Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. While the leopard seal's habitat overlaps that of other seals, it's easy to identify a leopard seal.

01
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This Seal Is Always Smiling

The mouth of the leopard seal turns upward at the edges, resembling a smile.
The mouth of the leopard seal turns upward at the edges, resembling a smile. David Merron Photography / Getty Images

You might think the obvious identifying feature of the leopard seal is its black-spotted coat. However, many seals have spots. What sets the leopard seal apart is its elongated head and sinuous body, somewhat resembling a furry eel. The leopard seal is earless, about 10 to 12 feet long (females slightly larger than males), weighs between 800 and 1000 pounds, and always seems to be smiling because the edges of its mouth curl upward. The leopard seal is large, but smaller than the elephant seal and walrus.

02
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Seals Are Carnivores

Leopard seals eat penguins.
Leopard seals eat penguins. © Tim Davis/Corbis/VCG / Getty Images

The leopard seal will eat just about any other animals. Like other carnivorous mammals, the seal has sharp front teeth and fearsome-looking inch-long canines. However, the seal's molars lock together to make a sieve that allows it to filter krill from the water. Seal pups primarily eat krill, but once they learn to hunt, they eat penguins, squid, shellfish, fish, and smaller seals. They are the only seals that regularly hunt warm-blooded prey. Leopard seals often wait underwater and propel themselves out of the water to snatch their victim. Scientists can analyze a seal's diet by examining its whiskers.

03
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One Seal Tried to Feed a Photographer

Photographing and studying leopard seals at close range is dangerous.
Photographing and studying leopard seals at close range is dangerous. Paul Souders / Getty Images

Leopard seals are highly dangerous predators. While attacks of humans are rare, cases of aggression, stalking, and fatalities have been documented. Leopard seals are known to attack the black pontoons of inflatable boats, posing an indirect risk to people.

However, not all encounters with humans are predatory. When National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen dove into Antarctic waters to observe a leopard seal, the female seal he photographed brought him injured and dead penguins. Whether the seal was trying to feed the photographer, teach him to hunt, or had other motives is unknown.

04
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They May Play With Their Food

Leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx) hunting Gentoo Penguin (Pygoscelis papua) into shore, Cuverville Island, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica.
Leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx) hunting Gentoo Penguin (Pygoscelis papua) into shore, Cuverville Island, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica. Ben Cranke/Nature Picture Library / Getty Images

Leopard seals are known to play "cat and mouse" with prey, typically with young seals or penguins. They will chase their prey until it either escapes or dies, but won't necessarily eat their kill. Scientists are uncertain of the reason for this behavior, but believe it may help hone hunting skills or might simply be for sport.

05
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Leopard Seals Sing Underwater

Leopard seal males hang under the ice when they sing.
Leopard seal males hang under the ice when they sing. Michael Nolan / Getty Images

During the austral summer, male leopard seals sing (loudly) underwater for hours each day. A singing seal hangs upside down, with a bent neck and pulsating inflated chests, rocking from side to side. Each male has a distinct call, although the calls change depending on the seal's age. Singing coincides with the breeding season. Captive females have been known to sing when reproductive hormone levels are elevated.

06
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Leopard Seals Are Solitary

It's unusual to see more than one leopard seal at a time.
It's unusual to see more than one leopard seal at a time. Roger Tidman / Getty Images

While some kinds of seals live in groups, the leopard seal is solitary. Exceptions include mother and pup pairs and temporary mating pairs. Seals mate in summer and give birth after 11 months gestation to a single pup. The pup is weaned on the ice for about a month. Females become mature between ages three and seven. Males mature a bit later, typically between ages six and seven. Leopard seals live a long time for a seal, partly because they have few predators. While the average lifespan is 12 to 15 years, it's not uncommon for a wild leopard seal to live 26 years.

07
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The Leopard Seal Is Not Endangered

Leopard seals are not hunted for their fur.
Leopard seals are not hunted for their fur. Rick Price / Getty Images

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), scientists once believed there may be over 200,000 leopard seals. Environmental changes have dramatically affected species the seals eat, so this number is likely inaccurate. The leopard seal is not endangered. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists it as a species of "least concern."

References

  • Rogers, T. L.; Cato, D. H. & Bryden, M. M. (1996). "Behavioral significance of underwater vocalizations of captive leopard seals, Hydrurga leptonyx". Marine Mammal Science12 (3): 414–42
  • Rogers TL (2014). "Source levels of the underwater calls of a male leopard seal". The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America136 (4): 1495–1498.
  • Wilson, Don E.; Reeder, DeeAnn M., eds. (2005). "Species: Hydrurga leptonyx". Mammal species of the world : a taxonomic and geographic reference (3rd ed.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
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Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "7 Fascinating Leopard Seal Facts." ThoughtCo, Jan. 15, 2018, thoughtco.com/leopard-seal-facts-4155875. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2018, January 15). 7 Fascinating Leopard Seal Facts. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/leopard-seal-facts-4155875 Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "7 Fascinating Leopard Seal Facts." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/leopard-seal-facts-4155875 (accessed January 20, 2018).