Species: H. leptonyx
Range: Antarctic and sub-Antarctic waters
Population: Estimated between 220,000 and 440,000
How to spot them: Distinctive black-spotted gray coat with a lighter-colored belly. Up to 12 feet long and 1,000 pounds. Earless, elongated heads with long, sharp teeth
IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern—at relatively low risk of extinction
Fierce and feline-looking, leopard seals are named for their distinctive black-spotted coat and strong, toothy jaws that resemble those of the big cat. And like their namesake, these seals are fast and ferocious hunters—Antarctica’s apex predator along with killer whales. Although they’re second in size to the elephant seal, leopard seals’ streamlined bodies help them rocket through the water, chasing prey at speeds of up to 25 miles an hour.
National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen has taken up the mission of helping to dismantle their savage reputation. While diving on assignment in Antarctica in 2006, he had an incredible encounter with a large female leopard seal. Over the course of four days, the inquisitive seal worked to establish a relationship with Nicklen, bringing him gifts of penguins in various states of demise and inspecting his scuba gear and camera.
Studying these creatures—even nailing down an exact population size—is difficult to do and there’s a lot science doesn’t yet know. But after his up-close experience, Nicklen, who has photographed polar bears and walrus, spirit bears and wolves, said that “leopard seals are the most incredible animals (he’s) ever had the pleasure of photographing.”
Scroll for more facts about the enigmatic leopard seal
The corners of a leopard seal’s mouth curve upward, resembling a smile—but underneath that deceptively sweet disposition are large canines designed for the kill. The only seal that regularly hunts warm-blooded prey, leopard seals grab penguins (and even other seals!) with razor sharp teeth, then violently thrash their catch back and forth.
During the summer breeding season, male leopard seals sing underwater all day, every day for three months. There appear to be five different types of calls, and as males grow older, the pitch of their songs becomes higher. Females are known to sing only when ready to mate.
Fun With Food
Leopard seals often hunt for enjoyment. They chase after prey and exhaust it before going in for the kill—once dead, the catch may be ignored. When they’re done ‘playing with their food’ and it’s time to eat, leopard seals are picky: They won’t chow down on the skeleton, feet, or head.
She's the Boss
Female leopard seals are bigger than the males. While females can weigh up to 1,000 lbs, males range closer to 800—but it’s rare to see them together. These solitary creatures only group or pair off during the summer mating season.
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