As the world’s second largest species of seal the leopard seal is capable of reaching sizes between 2.4 and 3.5m (8.4-11.7ft). Females are larger than males with most males not surpassing 3m (9.8ft). An average weight for a leopard seal is between 200 and 600kg (440 and 1,320lb).
Their slender body is coloured a dark grey on top and a light grey on the bottom. The neck is a lighter grey and patterned with black spots. At the end of the body is a tail with two flippers. One quarter of the way along the body is a flipper on each side of the body. Along the edge of these front flippers are claws.
Leopard seals are carnivores. They are the second largest predator in the Antarctic after the killer whale. They feed upon other seals, krill, squid, fish, penguins and other seabirds.
They do not have teeth which can slice prey into manageable pieces. As such they swing the food from side to side so it breaks into smaller pieces. When catching prey such as penguins they grab them by the feet and shake them vigorously then slap them against the surface of the water.
Waters off the coast of Antarctica provide a home for the leopard seal. They can also be found along the coast of the sub-Antarctic islands. Some individuals will occasionally drift into waters off the coast of South America, New Zealand, Australia and Africa though this is uncommon.
Pack ice is normally found in the habitats of leopard seals so that they can haul out. They spend most of their time in the water.
Mating occurs between November and February in leopard seal populations. Males will vocalise to attract a mate. They mate in the water after which the male leaves. He will go and mate with numerous females before the breeding season ends.
During her 11 months gestation the female stocks up on food. At the end of this she digs a hole in the pack ice where she will give birth to a single pup. She cares for this over a four week period in this hole. At the end of these four weeks the pup is weaned and they part ways so the female can breed again.
Some evidence suggests that the young leopard seals congregate together on sub Antarctic islands.
At three years of age a female leopard seal is sexually mature while this does not occur till the fourth year in males.
Leopard seals are solitary outside of their mating period when large numbers gather on pack ice.
The only predator of the leopard seal is the occasional killer whale and humans.
Some of the vocalisations made by leopard seals includes grunts and growls.
Leopard seals do not normally dive deep into the water with the longest recorded dive being 15 minutes long.
When translated their scientific name, Hydrurga leptonyx, means ‘slender-clawed water-worker’.
Leopard seals are incredibly playful. A photographer for National Geographic met one who attempted to show him how to hunt. It would bring him live penguins to kill and when he didn’t it demonstrated how it was done.
“Hydrurga leptonyx edit2”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hydrurga_leptonyx_edit2.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Hydrurga_leptonyx_edit2.jpg
“Leopard Seal” by cyfer13 – IMG_1968. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Leopard_Seal.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Leopard_Seal.jpg
Hückstädt, L. 2015. Hydrurga leptonyx. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e.T10340A45226422. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2015-4.RLTS.T10340A45226422.en. Downloaded on 17 May 2020.
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