Dec 072009
Photo provided courtesy of Chadica on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeAntarctic waters
Habitatcold seas
Nicheapex predator
Favorite Foodpenguins
Lengthbetween 8 and 10 feet
Weightup to 1,000 pounds
Statuslocally common
Threats – depleted krill stocks, pollution

In the sub-zero cold of the Antarctic ocean, there lives a predator that has no equivalent to the far north of the planet. Though the waters are too cold for sharks to thrive, another terror of the seas takes its place, cruising the treacherous straits and inlets where water meets frozen continent. Stalking its prey by sight and smell, the leopard seal is the apex predator of the south pole.

Leopard seals are truly massive animals, growing up to 10 feet long and weighing in at up to half a ton. Yet while these tank-like predators are among the clumsiest of animals on land, their muscular bodies power them through the freezing Antarctic waters with fearsome speed and agility. Sporting a dark-spotted coat from which it derives its name, the leopard seal is almost reptilian in appearance, with an enormous head and powerful, yawning jaws lined with teeth serrated like a Christmas tree saw. Unlike most other mammals, the females are bigger than the males, but both are deadly. As an ambush predator that will also pursue its prey for great distances underwater, the leopard seal is a cross between a crocodile and a shark, and bigger than most varieties of both.

The ultimate opportunistic predator of the Southern Ocean, the leopard seal hunts a wide variety of animals as prey. Younger seals use their teeth to filter tiny krill from the water, along with small fish and invertebrates like squid. The full-grown adults are able to tackle much larger prey, often cruising around colonies of animals that nest on the pack ice or on large floes. Leopard seals will hunt whatever they can get their jaws around, including several species of penguin and even other seals.

In fact, of all the seals in the world, the leopard seal is the most likely to prey on other seals. The most common target is the crabeater seal, a smaller Antarctic species that likes to congregate on ice floes. Leopard seals have been observed libgering in the channels of open water between Antarctic ice floes, waiting to ambush young crabeaters. After the initial attack, the leopard seal will give chase, only allowing 16% of young crabeaters that do manage to escape to do so without being wounded. Adult crabeaters frequently display deep, parallel scars across their bodies – a badge of survival earned during a chase with one of these giant predatory mammals. When the leopard seal does manage to snare its quarry, it will eat only the skin and blubbery fat of the unfortunate seal, leaving the rest of the carcass to the scavengers of the ocean bottom. It is likewise picky about its penguins, thrashing the bird’s body madly to remove edible portions from the skeleton and beak.

Due to its opportunistic lifestyle, the leopard seal is faring better than many other animals in the Antarctic that have more specialized feeding habits. However, as the influence of man reaches into areas of the planet once considered too remote to be impacted, the leopard’s seals future is fast becoming a matter of choice. If krill stocks suffer from acidification of the water and animal colonies fall under the dwindling pack-ice on a warming planet, this giant hunter will certainly feel the impact in its own detrimental way.

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