At the southernmost point on Earth, you'll find Antarctica. This is the coldest location you'll encounter during your worldly travels, as it's home to the majority of the world's ice, but you will also find a few of the world's most hardy sea creatures.
Meet the leopard seal – at first glance, these resemble some sort of giant slug. However, their blubbery demeanour is not something you should dismiss easily. Leopard seals are powerful predators, the most forbidding of all the seal species, and according to National Geographic, these seals, alongside killer whales, are one of the top hunters on the continent.
During a cruise to the Antarctic, you may spot a leopard seal or two – they're solitary creatures, and aren't typically aggressive unless provoked. What may surprise you, however, is their amazingly agile ability. Read on to find out more about this widely misunderstood species.
Learn about the leopard seal
Leopard seals are named so because of their black-spotted coats, which ranges from all shades of gray. These slippery creatures can be seen lazing around on top of ice, usually in small numbers. The thick layer of fatty skin keeps them insulated in the frigid icy waters as they hunt penguins, fish and other sea creatures.
Sitting at the top of the food chain, they're not fussy eaters, and will even wait near ice shelves to snatch birds as they try to snare a fish. Other components of their varied diet includes krill, which special grooves in their teeth help to filter from water, and also other weaker seals. There's really nothing that won't end up on their menu!
There have been several cases where a leopard seal has tried to 'feed' humans. Photographer for National Geographic, Paul Nicklen, found himself face-to-face with a female seal. Instead of acting aggressively, she spent the next few days bringing him food in the form of penguins, both alive and dead. It was thought that she sympathised with this lesser, weaker 'seal' and tried to show him how to hunt on his own.
It isn't advised that you try the same tactics, however. Despite their plump appearance, their small, earless heads and elongated bodies allow these seals to move extremely fast both on land and water, and do pose a danger to humans that get too close. The best you can do is get a video, showcasing their immense strength as they hunt their prey.
Living in Antarctica
Leopard seals are the most aggressive species in the seal family. When hunting, leopard seals exhibit their fierce nature with extremely powerful jaws to catch their prey. Sometimes, a leopard seal will even drive their food to exhaustion simply by playing chase with them – much like their feline namesake.
Female leopard seals are larger than males, and can grow over 3.5 metres long, according to National Geographic. They can easily weight up to 600 kilograms! Leopard seals are only superseded in size by the elephant and walrus seals.
Unlike other seal species, the leopard seals prefer a solitary life. There'll only be one or two companions at most, and as they can pose such a risk to observing scientists, little is known about their reproduction. What has been discovered, however, is that they will come together in a larger group to reproduce around November – March, and pups are carried for eleven months. During pregnancy, the expectant mother will dig a hole in the ice in which to birth her young.
While the fathers don't typically hang around after the birth, the mothers will rear them until they can fend for themselves. There aren't many natural predators to leopard seals, but there's not many of them left either. If you do spot a seal or two, it's likely to be an Antarctic fur seal, Crabeater seal, and more possibly, a Weddell seal.
Either way, the leopard seal is an important part of the wildlife you many encounter in Antarctica.
You can choose from many different expeditions that'll venture to this continent – have a look or contact our team for more information today.
- Learn more about Antarctic Wildlife
- Why are there no penguins in the Arctic?
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