Leopard seals are top predators in the Antarctic. They appear almost reptilian with their long, sleek bodies and large head with strong jaws.
Scientific & Common Names
Kingdom - Animalia
Phylum - Chordata
Class - Mammalia
Order – Carnivora
Clade - Pinnipedia
Family – Phocidae
Subfamily - Monachinae
Genus - Hydrurga
Species – H. leptonyx
Common Name – Leopard Seal, Sea Leopard
Leopard seals are very large, nearly as long as walruses (though not nearly as heavy). They can weigh over 1300 lbs. and reach lengths of nearly 12 feet. Females are usually slightly larger than males. Their coloration is typically a dark grey on top, with a lighter shade below, with a spotted pattern. These spots, along with their predatory nature, strong jaws and sharp teeth, are what give the seal its common name.
Little is known about the reproductive habits of Leopard seals. Breeding usually occurs in December and January, with females giving birth on the ice between September and January.
Males produce loud underwater calls during the breeding season. It is thought that these “songs” are linked to breeding, but the specific reason for these vocalizations is not precisely known.
Not much is known about the social behavior of leopard seals, though they are believed to be mostly solitary outside of breeding season. Along with killer whales, they are the top marine predators in the Antarctic ecosystem, and feed on almost everything: krill, squid, fish, penguins, other seals – one leopard seal was even found to have a platypus in its stomach contents. Individuals are known to stake out territory around established penguin colonies.
Leopard seals have existed in their current form since the early Pliocene era, around 5 million years ago.
Their Antarctic habitat means that they rarely come into contact with humans, but when they are encountered, extreme caution should be exercised as these seals can potentially be very dangerous and unpredictable.
Leopard seals are a “Least Concern” species, and it is estimated that there are at least 100,000 and may be over 200,000 of these animals throughout Antarctica. However, they are protected by the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals, and could soon face threats to their survival from climate change as global warming melts the sea ice of their habitat.
Princeton Field Guide: Whales, Dolphins and Other Marine Mammals of the World, Jarrett & Shirihai, 2006
Guide to Marine Mammals of the World; Reeves, Stewart, Clapham, Powell; 2008