As Antarctica Warms, Leopard Seals Are Switching What They Eat

Source: National Geographic/Craig Welch

Photo: Andrew Shiva/Wikimedia Commons 

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It was on the northern tip of a small rocky island at the bottom of the world where the solitary top predators suddenly started gathering.

Before 1996 around Livingston Island’s Cape Shirreff, across the windy Bransfield Strait from the western Antarctic Peninsula, never more than two leopard seals were seen at a time. As far back as the 1800s, commercial fur sealers who’d slaughtered marine mammals for their pelts kept painstaking records of the animals they saw. Leopard seals, with their powerful jaws, upturned mouths and menacing teeth, weren’t among them.

In recent years, though, a half-dozen hungry leopard seals may bob and weave offshore at once. They often plop onto the cape and nap. As many as 60 or 80 may swing by in a season. Once, researchers saw 30 hauled out at the same time.

“While that might not sound like a lot, keep in mind we’re talking about a large, apex predator,” says Doug Krause, a wildlife biologist and leopard seal expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Try to imagine 80 adult grizzly bears all foraging on your local beach.”

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Photo: Andrew Shiva/Wikimedia Commons

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