The Leopard Seal is one of the largest creatures in the ocean and also, one of the most private. Learn more about this gigantic mammal and what has made them thrive for centuries.
Seals are large aquatic mammals, distinguished by having four legs that are adapted into flippers. There are three seal families: the true seals, the eared seals and the walrus. The leopard seal is a member of the true seal family.
The leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx), also known as the sea leopard, is a solitary, earless mammal that inhabits Antarctic and sub-Antarctic regions. Leopard seals can also sometimes be found as far north as South America, Australia and New Zealand. Named for the color patterns on its fur, which often appears as spots or pelage, the leopard seal is a large mammal, notorious for being fierce hunters of prey. The word "hydrurga" means "water worker." "Leptonyx" comes from the Greek leptos, which means "small," and "onux" is another word for "claw."
Because they are "loners" in the ocean, the leopard seal remains somewhat of a mystery to scientists and oceanographers, and little is known about their precise mating and hunting habits.
The leopard seal is easily identified by their long, slender bodies and large heads and jaws. The shape of their heads makes this species almost appear reptilian, and their humongous jaws give them an unusually large gape. The canine teeth of the leopard seal are long and sharply pointed, in contrast to many other seals. The male seals generally weigh six to eight hundred pounds while the females weigh in on the heavier side, between eight hundred and one thousand pounds. Leopard seals are known to grow as long as twenty-one feet, but average between twelve and fifteen.
Leopard seals will eat almost anything and are notorious for being manipulative, aggressive hunters. Agile in nature, the seals swim with their back flippers and steer with their front. The predatory activities have made the leopard seal infamous, as they hunt and kill warm-blooded animals, as well as fish and krill, unlike any other species of seal. The favorite food of the leopard seal is the penguin. Typically, the seals will chase or grab penguins in the water and thrash their capture back and forth until the skin peels away, so that the remaining carcass can be eaten. These seals are well known for frolicking with their food, often playing "cat and mouse" with their prey. Because of their fierce strength and incredible speed, seals have also been seen jumping on to the ice to grab their prey, and returning shortly thereafter to the water. Penguins are extremely resilient, and often escape. Many legless and flipperless penguins can often be spotted years after an unsuccessful seal attack. Because of the resilient nature of the penguin, leopard seals do not survive on penguin alone. They also consume krill, fish, other seabirds, squid, crustaceans and smaller seals.
The leopard seal is very much the loner, even breeding almost exclusively in the pack. Baby seals are rarely seen. Because of their private nature, very little is known about their actual breeding patterns. The female leopard seal reaches her sexual maturity between the ages of two and seven, and carries her young for nine months, producing just one pup a year during a period between November and January. Female leopard seals do not give birth in the water, as seen with other species and instead, hurl themselves onto the pack ice when it is time to deliver. Baby seals often weigh in excess of seventy pounds and double in size within the first three months of life. "Pups" or baby seals survive on a diet of krill, often supplied by the mother.
The average life span of the leopard seal is twenty-six years or more. It's only natural predator is the killer whale. Currently, there are more than 220,000 seals in existence. These seals were taken in small numbers during early sealing days in the mid 1980's for research, but today, are left unharmed to live in their natural environment.