What creature is the second largest of its kind, a ruler of the sub-Antarctic, and is named after a feline lookalike?
The leopard seal!
Massive and Mighty
The leopard seal is the second largest seal in the world, right after the elephant seal. Leopard seals primarily live along the icy shelves of Antarctica and nearby islands, but they sometimes wander north towards New Zealand, South Africa, South America, and Australia. Their spotted underbellies resemble that of the spotted wildcat, explaining the ‘leopard’ in their name.
The only natural predators leopard seals fear are orcas and large sharks. This makes them one of the apex predators of the sub-Antarctic, and they have the brawn and brains to show for it.
These seals have massive skulls and flexible jaws. Their mouths are extremely wide, fitting two sets of teeth for different purposes. The long, sharp teeth in the front allow leopard seals to eat larger prey such as penguins, squid, fish, and other seals. On the other hand, their back molars are built for smaller prey. Their molars lock together and filter feed to pick out tiny krill from the ocean water. With flexible jaws comes a flexible diet.
The Anti-Social Social Club
Leopard seals are solitary animals, with the only exception being mating season and one month of single-mother parenting. After mothers wean off their pups, it’s back to riding solo for the whole family.
Despite their solitary lifestyle, leopard seals enjoy having conversations (or what may seem like a concert recital). They spend long periods of time vocalizing underwater – likely to attract a mate, call out to their young, or defend their territory. While vocalizing, the seal will hang upside down from rocks near the shore and swing from side to side. It’s quite the performance!
Leopard seals include other species in these discussions, too. Many SCUBA divers have stories of curious leopard seals interacting with them for at least a few minutes at a time. Paul Nicklen of National Geographic encountered one fearless leopard seal who brought him live, injured, and dead penguins repeatedly, seemingly attempting to teach the photographer how to hunt.
Considering these are solitary animals, they sure know how to host a party!
How are human activities impacting leopard seals?
Increasing tourism in the Antarctic region has recently concerned conservationists as it has begun changing the local environmental conditions and can possibly lead to the spread of diseases. Thankfully, leopard seals are not considered endangered at the moment, but the future is uncertain due to the looming threat of climate change. The melting of ice in our Southern Hemisphere will lead to a decrease in habitat for leopard seals and their prey, and they will have to quickly adapt to a rapidly changing world.
As apex predators, leopard seals are important to the functioning of the Antarctic ecosystem. All predators help maintain balance. As wildlife advocates, the most important thing we can do for predators is challenge the scary, mean reputations imposed upon them. Every animal has a sensible side and a critical role to play in the ecosystem – even if they happen to like meat.
To witness a SCUBA diver and a curious leopard seal spend some quality time together, watch this clip:
This creature definitely has my seal of approval!
By Tania Roa