Are Leopard Seals as Dangerous as You Think?

Posted on Categories Discover Magazine

At first glance, they might seem cute, with sleep, spotted coats, floppy forms, and near mischievous-looking smiles, as they haul-out upon land or ice. But put yourself in the shoes – or flippers, rather – of an unfortunate penguin, and you’d see a different side of them: a gaping pink maw, greeting you with long fangs, ready to pierce flesh.

While it’s unlikely you’ll ever encounter one of these apex predators unless you find yourself down in the southern hemisphere, leopard seals wield a fearsome reputation and bite.

Leopard Seal Facts

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Leopard seals are fascinating creatures that have captured the interest of researchers and wildlife enthusiasts alike. From where they call home to how they survive in the harsh conditions of the Antarctic, here are some things to know about the sea leopard.

Leopard Seal Habitat: Where Do Leopard Seals Live?

Leopard seals live in the frigid Southern Ocean, inhabiting the icy Antarctic continent as well as sub-Antarctic regions. They’re solitary animals, but they’re also wanderers. According to the Australian Antarctic Program, they rack up a record of travel up north at Heron Island, which is located in the southern portion of the Great Barrier Reef.

These polar predators are also considered native residents of New Zealand, as stated by the New Zealand Department of Conservation. On top of that, regular sightings have been reported in South America, South Africa, and Australia.

In the wild, leopard seals can live for over 26 years, spending their time traversing the southern pole, though they don’t limit themselves to merely Antarctica.

Leopard Seal Size: How Big are Leopard Seals?

Female leopard seals generally trump males, reaching about 3.6 meters, or about 12 feet, long – approximately as big as if you stacked two of the tallest people you know on top of one another. Males, by contrast, are slightly smaller, ranging between 2.8 to 3.3 meters.

As for leopard seals’ weights, they can get as heavy as a grand piano. The International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) states that females can weigh anywhere between 260 kilograms to over 500 kilograms, while males tend to max out at 300 kilograms.

Try lifting those weights around.

Leopard Seal Diet: What Do Leopard Seals Eat?

Leopard seals may be best known for their diet of penguins, but as generalist predators, they enjoy prey from all trophic levels. This includes the pups of other seals, such as crabeater, southern elephant, and Antarctic fur seals, as well as fish, cephalopods like squid, and even krill.

What leopard seals eat varies depending on the time of year and prey availability. Researchers have noted they tend to eat more crabeater seal pups in November, for example, as they grow in availability, while leopard seals forage more krill during late September as well as March. Penguin consumption tended to peak during fledging season, tapering off as it passed.

The time of day even affects what leopard seals snack on, much like how we eat different things for breakfast versus dinner. Researchers have found that leopard seals likely hunt seal pups and penguins in the day, while snacking on krill at night.

Because krill actually comprises a major part of the leopard seal’s diet, that may make these apex predators some of the first Antarctic seals to be pressured by fluctuating krill supplies – whether that’s through direct competition with other krill-feeding predators or through the exploitation of krill at the hands of humans.

Read More: 5 Animals That Are Cute, But Not Too Friendly

Are Seals Carnivores?

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Seals, as a group consisting of over 30 individual species, are carnivores, preferring the fish inhabiting colder seas. Leopard seals are unique as being the only pinnipeds to prey largely on other warm-blooded creatures, including fellow seals.

What Are Leopard Seal Teeth Like?

Sporting long canines at the fronts of their mouths to lock onto prey and tear at them, leopard seals also balance that out with trident-like molars behind those canines. These peculiarly shaped teeth act as sieves to sift out their much smaller-sized meals, like krill.

Similarly to how whales process krill, leopard seals suck in mouthfuls of them, blowing water out the sides of their mouths as krill catch onto their interlocking teeth, creating a tasty mouthful of tiny crustaceans to munch on.

Read More: Seals Caught On Film Clapping In the Wild For the First Time Ever

How Dangerous Are Leopard Seals?

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Leopard seals are formidable and skilled hunters, known to employ specialized techniques to catch specific prey – from sitting and waiting in available cover to ambush penguins or seal pups to flushing and stalking notothen fish.

Plus, with their long heads, sleek bodies, and round, dark eyes resembling black buttons, leopard seals might resemble a giant snake or reptile more than an actual cuddly seal. It certainly doesn’t help that they’re known for a brutal killing technique.

When unsuspecting penguins, for example, dip into the ocean, a leopard seal sitting in wait around the ice will ambush them. After capturing a bird in their jaws, they’ll sling it in an arc to and fro, smashing it this way and that against the ocean surface, until the skin peels off and reveals a carcass ready to eat.

It’s certainly a technique that leaves our imaginations (and perhaps stomachs) reeling. But how dangerous are leopard seals to humans, specifically?

Are Leopard Seals Dangerous to Humans?

Historic accounts of leopard seals, based on Antarctic expeditions, have dubbed them with frightening (and quite biased) monikers – including evil. However, there has been only one recorded fatality resulting from an encounter between a leopard seal and human.

In July 2003, marine biologist Kirsty Brown, who worked with the Rothera Research Station, was in the water when a leopard seal grabbed her and dragged her beneath the surface. When a rescue boat arrived and pulled her out, despite an hour of resuscitation efforts, she was pronounced dead from drowning.

This incident was unprecedented – especially considering it occurred at sea, rather than at ice’s edge. It led the British Antarctic Survey to temporarily suspend all diving and scuba activities in the area until the next year.

An ensuing study analyzing interactions between humans and leopard seals over the last few decades, published in March 2006, found no conclusive evidence that human behaviors or activities trigger leopard seal attacks.

What Causes Leopard Seal Attacks?

Most encounters occur at the edge of the ice, where the seals like to stay in search of prey. There have been other recorded instances of leopard seals trying to capture humans on the ice, though those researchers managed to escape. Part of this may be that, as researchers point out, leopard seals have never encountered humans regularly: They may mistake people as their other much more preferred prey, penguins. Humans and penguins are both the only creatures who stand vertically on the floating ice and even “waddle” about.

Certainly, then, leopard seals pose some degree of a threat to humans. Brown’s death was an example of a leopard seal’s capacity to display predatory behavior toward humans.

But still, Brown’s death stood out as an anomaly of sorts: Leopard seals who did approach or encounter divers generally displayed more signs of curiosity than an inclination for violence.

Like other marine apex predators, from these oceanic leopards to great whites to killer whales, our perceptions of how dangerous they are to us may be miles away from the actual threat they pose.

The prevailing advice for those who do frequent a leopard seal’s terrain is to remain vigilant and not to panic if they do encounter one. The advice from the 2006 study is to do nothing, retreat slowly if the interaction escalates, and to never turn your back toward the seal.

New Zealand’s Department of Conservation also adds to stay at least 20 meters away from a leopard seal in the first place, and to never attempt touching or feeding one.

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What Animals Eat Seals?

While leopard seals are unique for their regular consumption of other types of seals, as apex predators, what eats leopard seals?

Do Polar Bears Eat Leopard Seals?

In your wild imagination, you might picture a show-down between two of the top predators in the world: the chunky polar bear and the snakey leopard seal. While polar bears do consume seals, though, they’d never actually encounter a leopard seal, given the two species dwell on opposite poles.

Do Orcas Eat Leopard Seals?

Killer whales and leopard seals are both some of the top predators of the Antarctic. But the only natural predator of the leopard seal, according to the Australian Antarctic Program, is indeed the orca.

Read More: How Do Animals Know What Their Predators Are?

Are Leopard Seals Endangered?

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Humans have never systematically exploited leopard seals before. They enjoy a relatively stable population trend, with no evidence pointing toward an imminent decline, though the actual trend is unknown.

Leopard seals are not immune from pressures and threats, such as climate change which threatens the sea ice they depend on for reproduction or strains the prey populations they consume. As of the IUCN’s last evaluation in 2015, they are classified as species of Least Concern.

How Many Leopard Seals Are Left In the World?

Because leopard seals are solitary animals, it’s difficult for researchers to track for certain how many remain. But the IUCN estimates that there may be at least 35,000 individuals total in the world, qualifying that as a probable “substantial underestimate.”

Read More: 5 Endangered Animals You Should Meet

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