It is not just its spotted coat that gives these seals their name. Like the animal after which they are named, they are fearsome hunters.
These predatory seals live all around the Antarctic, where they rest on the pack ice that covers the ocean in winter. Leopard seals are also found on most subantarctic islands, and occasionally further north in the warmer (but still very cold) waters around Tierra del Fuego, Cape Horn and the coast of southern Argentina.
They are opportunistic and fearsome hunters, and their prey includes the young of other seals. They will batter penguins ferociously from side to side in the water until the birds’ bodies break apart. Yet the seal’s molar teeth are also designed so that they act as sieves, allowing them to feed on tiny krill. Leopard seals themselves face few predators, apart from killer whales.
Leopard seals feed on krill, which they filter from the water using their large cheek teeth, and cephalopods. They are also one of the few seal species in which warm-blooded animals make up a significant part of the diet. Penguins and other seals, including crabeaters and fur seals, are actively hunted, and many crabeaters and fur seals carry scars from attacks by leopard seals. Adult penguins are caught in the water, but penguin chicks are snatched on the ice. This species has been known to scavenge the carrion of whales and other seals.
Leopard seals have large, sleek bodies, almost reptile-like heads and long canine teeth. Males are generally smaller than females. The coloration is dark grey to near-black on the back, pale on the sides and silver below, with variable amounts of grey spotting.
Unlike most other seals, which propel themselves through the water with side-to-side strokes of the hind limbs, leopard seals swim by paddling with their large foreflippers. Apart from during the breeding season, these seals are primarily solitary, although they are seldom far from others of their own species. Leopard seals sometimes congregate in loose groups according to age and maturity. Breeding occurs in summer, apparently in the water, shortly after the birth of that year’s pups. The young are born on the shores of the many small islands that surround Antarctica, and also at certain places on the coasts of southern South America and southern Africa. Leopard seal pups are weaned at about four weeks of age. The males take no part in the care of the young.
Mating is thought to take place from January until March, but there is little information available.
Distribution: Found on the pack ice in Antarctic waters, and occasionally recorded as venturing further north to Australia and South Africa.
Habitat: Ice and land.
Weight: 200 - 590 kg (440 - 1300 lb); females are slightly heavier.
Length: 240 - 340 cm (94 - 134 in).
Maturity: Females 3-8 years; males 6 - 7 years.
Gestation Period: 248 - 279 days; embryonic development only starts 2-3 months after fertilization.
Breeding: 1; weaning occurs by 18 days.
Diet: Carnivorous, hunting other seals, especially crabeater seals, penguins and invertebrates including squid and krill.
Lifespan: 12-15 years.
Status: Lower risk.
This is large, giving a wide gape, and filled with an array of sharp teeth.
The body is narrow, with a distinctive spotted pattern, particularly prominent on the underparts.
These are relatively long, aiding both the swimming power and agility of these seals.
The seal lurks beneath an ice shelf, waiting for a penguin to dive into the water, and then ambushes it.