Leopard seals, or leopard seals, are fierce predators with formidable hunting skills. These seals are the only ones of their kind to feed on warm-blooded animals, including other seals. With a thick layer of blubber, these earless seals spend their lives in Antarctic or sub-Antarctic waters.
We’ve combed through fascinating details about these creatures and compiled a list of 10 incredible facts about leopard seals.
1. Leopard seals are bigger than you think
Leopard seals are huge, powerful predators, with the females being larger. When you think of seals, you might think of cute puppy-like creatures at the zoo. Leopard seals are not. While they may have a slight grin on their face, they are anything but cute and friendly.
Female leopard seals can grow up to 12 feet and over 1,000 pounds. The largest ever seen was over 1,300 pounds and nearly 13 feet. Their heads are the size of a grizzly bear and their mouths are full of long, sharp teeth.
2. Leopard seals are one of the deadliest mammals in Antarctica
Leopard seals are giant apex predators that roam the Antarctic waters. It is the second largest seal in the Antarctic ecosystem, after elephant seals. Unlike their chubby cousins, leopard seals have long, muscular bodies and exceptionally powerful jaws filled with serrated teeth.
Their jaws can open up to 160 degrees and clamp with incredible force. These biting eaters easily tear penguins and baby seals to shreds by moving their heads from side to side.
3. A leopard seal killed a scientist
Scientists have been diving and snorkeling in Antarctica for decades without any casualties from leopard seals. But that changed in July 2003 during a snorkeling trip in the Antarctic Peninsula.
Kirsty Brown, a British marine biologist, was struck by a leopard seal, pulled underwater and held there for several minutes. Despite rescue and CPR attempts, Kirsty died.
It’s not known why the seal attacked her, but researchers believe it may be due to the increased human presence around these creatures. Scientists fear this incident could lead to more life-threatening encounters.
While trying to capture a realistic image of the leopard seal and rid them of their vile stereotype, a scientist took a closer look at their mysterious personalities. After sitting in front of the male for a few minutes, the female seal relaxed and began trying to feed him penguins.
She threw live penguins in his direction so he could catch them. When that didn’t work, she resorted to offering dead penguins. Finally, in a fit of annoyance, she plopped the penguins right on his head.
Most of the stories you read about leopard seals are about violence and aggression, but this video proved that there is still a lot we don’t understand about this animal.
5. Leopard Seals Feeding on Sharks in New Zealand
We know that leopard seals prey on penguins and other seals, but for the first time there is evidence that they also prey on sharks. In 2021, scientists led a study to better understand these predators. The team studied and analyzed large amounts of leopard seal droppings and made the astonishing discovery of shark remains.
New Zealanders are seeing more and more leopard seals these days, and researchers think it’s because global warming is pushing them to find more food. It is not known whether these seals have always hunted sharks or whether this is a new behavior. Nevertheless, feeding on predators is a cause for concern and a potential disruption of the fragile ecosystem.
6. Leopard seals steal from each other
Scientists have always speculated that leopard seals hunt cooperatively, willingly passing food back and forth. But new evidence suggests that leopard seals are, in fact, major bullies.
A team from National Geographic mounted cameras on several of these seals and watched them steal food from each other outright. This theft does not end peacefully. The two will slap each other with their powerful jaws until one releases its grip. Unfortunately, it’s usually the smaller ones that go without a meal.
Food stealing (kleptoparasitism) is not unknown in the animal kingdom, but is very rare in marine mammals.
7. These apex predators love to sing underwater
While they may not sing in the way humans are used to, leopard seals use vocalizations for many purposes. Males and females make singing sounds during the mating season, but the males are the loudest and most devoted.
They will often make “thrills” and “noises” all night, every night. These broadcast calls help them find and select a partner. Seals share common sounds, but each combines them into unique sequences. Male leopard seals also sound different based on their age.
8. Leopard seals love to play with their food
Leopard seals are the bullies of Antarctica and they enjoy playing with and harassing their prey. When a leopard seal has had his fill, he often plays a cat-and-mouse game with frightened penguins.
The seal will chase the penguin back and forth from the shore until he finally returns it to safety. There is no point in this puppet show other than that the seal has a lot of fun playing. Researchers speculate that it could also be a way to train young leopard seals to hunt.
9. The gestation period of a leopard seal is 11 months
When a female leopard seal turns two to six years old, she is ready to start breeding. After mating with a bull, this female seal species undergoes a process called delayed implantation. Delayed implantation means that the puppy is only born in the summer by delaying fertilization of the egg for three months. The mother is about 240 days pregnant.
To give birth, the mother seal eats more food than usual and then retreats to the ice. A pup seal will need to fend for itself just a few weeks after birth.
10. Leopard seals have only one natural predator
Orcas (orcas) are the only known predators of leopard seals. Orcas are giant, aggressive animals that prey on these seals. Leopard seals aren’t known for longevity, but if they manage to dodge an orca, they can live up to 26 years.