It is time to learn about the dreaded leopard seals which have by scientific name Hydrurga Leptonyx.
Like the Weddell Seals, Ross Seals and Crabeater seals , leopard seals belong to the group of Lobodontinas Seals, which are characterized by having adaptations in their teeth, including the lobes and cusps, which are useful to remove the smaller prey from the water (the name «Lobodontini «, means «tooth lobe «).
Table Of Content
- 1 The Leopard Seals’ Main Characteristics
- 2 The Leopard Seals’ Common Behavior
- 3 Habitat and Distribution
- 4 Leopard Seals’ Reproduction
- 5 Differences between the Leopard Seals and the Sea lions
- 6 Leopard Seals ’Alimentation Habits
- 7 Main Threats
- 8 Leopard Seals’ Predators
- 9 Economic Importance of the Leopard Seals
The Leopard Seals’ Main Characteristics
They are highly carnivorous mammals that belong to the family of the true seals. These seals are characterized by being large and very voluptuous in terms of muscles, and their skin color may vary but they are mostly dark gray in the upper part of their body, while their abdomen is light gray with dark or black spots which resemble the spots that leopards have.
Their head and snout are a little small, although they have a relatively long neck. Contrary to other types of seals, leopard seals have relatively large fins that give them better mobility to displace overland and to swim comfortably when they need to capture their prey.
The female leopard seals tend to be slightly larger than males. Their sight and smell senses are highly developed compared to other species of seals, which makes of them a dangerous predator for different kind of prey. Another of their outstanding features relays in their ability to emit vocalizations at the bottom of the sea, which can reach long distances reaching even the surface in spite of ice.
Size and weight
As we have already mentioned, the leopard seals have large size and strong musculature. As for females they measure between 3.5 and 4 meters in length and their weight ranges between 500 and 600 kgms.
In turn the males’ length ranges from 3 to 3.8 meters, while their weight is approximately 320 kgms. Both sexes are known as skilled swimmers despite their weight, since their pectoral fins facilitate their movements and as well as moving over long distances.
Moreover, their anatomical characteristics allow them to even live comfortably on the surface over layers of ice without any risk. This fact is very useful for them, since they don´t need to immerse into big depths to capture their prey.
They can even capture land prey. The inner portion of their mouth is pink and their teeth are sharp, which accentuates their characteristic of feared predators.
The respiratory system of the Leopard seals has been adapted, so that they can spend a lot of time underwater, since they have lungs with a big capacity that allow them to immerse for a long time, to hunt fish and other types of marine animals. This way a leopard seal can slow down its breathing to save oxygen and on many occasions it is easy to confuse a specimen that is simply sleeping with a dead animal.
Let´s meet them better
The Leopard Seals’ Common Behavior
They are known for being very solitary creatures that only make groups during the breeding stage and during the first years of breeding. Leopard seals spend much of their time in the water, and only emerge to the surface when they make their breaks on large blocks of ice surrounded by large groups of penguins.
However, it has been difficult to study their communicating way properly, but it is known that males perform a sort of vocalization when they are in need of mating, specifically before courting the female and after breeding.
Many people consider the Leopard seals as dangerous creatures due to their hunting skills, which could also been applied against human beings.
However there are many testimonies that differ from the leopard seals´aggressive behavior against humans, since many people who have been in their surroundings have approached them at a pertinent distance, without having received any damage. Apparently not invading their space or their loneliness seems to be the only requirement not to agitate them. The only attacks on humans by leopard seals have occurred when trying to hunt them.
Habitat and Distribution
The leopard-seals´ habitat focuses primarily on the cold seas of the Antarctic Ocean, and the mountainous areas and the large blocks of ice around them commonly serve as a home. However, they spend most of their time in the water or resting over large ice blocks.
Unfortunately their habitat has been dramatically altered, due to the climatic changes occurring in the world, which has caused the poles to begin to melt slowly, altering the habitat and food resources needed for this species.
Today it is estimated that the total population of leopard seals is around 220,000 individuals, so despite the consequences of climate change, this species is not yet considered in extinction.
They develope migratory patterns, especially during their juvenile stage, being common to find them at the Falkland Islands, the Cook Islands and South Africa which are far from their natural habitats. These journeys are carried out during winter, to obtain food mainly.
This is where they live
Leopard Seals’ Reproduction
This species reach its sexual maturity between 3 and 7 years of age, although sometimes females 2 years old are already sexually mature.
Although there is no data about how the courtship of this species is carried out, it is believed that males usually make peculiar sounds to let the female know that they are in need of mating.
Their mating occurs when the male rides the female and both spin on the ground, until the male releases his reproductive hormones and manages to mate with the female.
This whole process begins in the Antarctic summer, which takes place between November and January, when the seals leave the water and place on the ice to begin their reproductive process.
During this process Leopard seals eat more than normal since they will fast later. In addition, this is a kind of seal that usually give birth in solitary, unlike other species that do it in group.
Gestation lasts between 9 and 13 months and the offspring are born with one and a half meter in length and about 25 kilograms of weight.
Thereafter, the female breastfeeds them with their nutritious milk getting them to rise quickly in weight, so that they can head to the sea in an autonomous way in two or three weeks, then molting their first fur. When they can swim alone their mother stops feeding them and starts looking for her own food.
Differences between the Leopard Seals and the Sea lions
Although both are mammals and sometimes you can believe that these species belong to the same family, is not really so. They belong to different classes and there are small differences between them. The leopard seals lack of auditory system, in fact they don´t have ears that allow them to hear the surroundings sounds.
In this respect their way of perceiving threats, is by means of recognizing the vibrations in the soils or in the water, what alerts them of the existence of threats or a nearby prey. On the contrary the sea lions do have small ears on the sides of their head, which allows them to be aware of everything that happens around them. On the other hand, the leopard seals´ front feet which are usually plump and furry, look small in comparison to the elongated front fins of the sea lions.
Both tend to spend most of their time in the water, although the sea lions need to regularly go to the surface to breathe.
On the contrary the leopard seals have the ability to remain for a prolonged time in the water, due to the characteristics in their respiratory system previously mentioned. As far as size is concerned sea lions can reach a bigger height than the leopard seals, while the weight of both species is similar.
As for the offspring, the leopard seals are born with a white membrane that allows them to camouflage in the snow until their skin takes the tone that corresponds. On the contrary the sea lions are born immediately with a brown or dark gray skin which almost doesn´t change over the years.
During adulthood leopard seals have their characteristic gray fur, which they maintain for life. On the other hand, the sea lions are kept from birth with their characteristic brown color which seldomly varies.
Another marked difference between these two species is given by the leopard seals´ scarce whiskers, or very subtle and not visible to the naked eye, while the sea lions have abundant mustaches that grow and become more noticeable as the years go by.
Leopard Seals ’Alimentation Habits
Their diet is varied and is made up of different species of fish and crustaceans, but if there is something that differentiates them is that they even feed on other types of seals. Even penguins are also a common prey of these seals, to which they capture employing different techniques.
When leopard seals are underwater, they are able to capture large amounts of fish, or bite and pluck big portions of meat, in the case of large or bulky dams.
This is why they are considered as fearsome predators and represent a big threat to the other species that inhabit the areas where they develop.
This species is under conservation programs by different organizations that are dedicated to this type of activities, which has achieved to reduce its hunting. Thanks to the Antarctic Treaty, the maximum number of leopard seals that can be hunted annually is 12,000 specimens, although this figure is never reached, due to defense strategies and the aggressive behavior of this species when it faces real threats.
Even more the few individuals who are captured are employed to conduct research on their morphology or reproductive system. On the other hand many locals in the areas where they live usually capture them to take over their skins, which according to beliefs and myths of those places, have some kind of medicinal benefit.
Another threat relies on the effects of the aforementioned global warming, which while affecting all of us equally, has its most devastating repercussions on the Earth’s poles.
On this regard, several researchers suggest that to prevent this situation some actions should be taken, such as the creation of aquariums or environments under captive fit, where the leopard seals and other seals´ species can survive without any inconvenience.
However, we must bear in mind that the human beings can reverse or at least greatly reduce the effects of global warming. The first step is the reduction of emissions of gases such as CO2 from motor vehicles and even cigars, which is the main responsible of this phenomenon.
On the other hand, we must participate in any environmental conservation activity, especially those related to recycling processes of different materials such as plastic, paper and glass. In this way we collaborate in the reduction of the CO2 released by different factories where in some way these materials are processed or used.
Leopard Seals’ Predators
The Killer whales (Orcas) can be mentioned as the main predator of this species although, due to the also predatory characteristics of the leopard seals and their ability to defend themselves, these attacks are not given very often.
Economic Importance of the Leopard Seals
Although they are not endangered species and their hunting is limited, this is not to say that these measures don´t generate economic benefits to the inhabitants of the localities near the waters where they live.
The seals´ hunting is an activity that has been carried out by the settlers of Antarctica for several years, and although many of them consider that their meat is only consumed by the inhabitants of such zones, there are studies that indicate that several countries also consume them.
Their fur is another quoted aspect, as its curious features attract many lovers of coats and even handbags that are made with it. The unmeasured hunting of the leopard seals and other seals that coexist in the Antarctic region, made many people think that they would disappear completely from their ecosystems, basically because of their coveted fur.
For this reason, the Antarctic Treaty was implemented, which regulates its hunting. Today the Antarctica´s economy is based mostly on the scientific research carried out to the wide variety of species that inhabit it, and even tourism represents an important economic activity for this region.
At the same time, deposits of coal, hydrocarbons, iron, platinum, copper, among other minerals in small quantities have been found around this area, and although they are not enough to exploit them, they attract people who market them in small quantities.
Even if big amounts of any ore mentioned above were found, they could not be exploited, since the environmental protection protocols carried out in 1991 penalize large-scale mineral activity in this area.