Novel baseline data on leopard seals, the mysterious apex predators of Antarctica
Published:13 Sep.2022    Source:Baylor University
Baylor University marine biologist Sarah Kienle, Ph.D., has always been fascinated by leopard seals. These prehistoric, reptilian-looking seals are often portrayed as scary villains in movies such as "Happy Feet" and "Eight Below," but little is known about their basic biology. The combination of the extreme climate in Antarctica, the species' solitary habits and their lethal reputation makes leopard seals one of the most difficult top predators to study on Earth.
In a first-of-its-kind study funded by the National Science Foundation awarded to professor Daniel Costa (lead PI; UCSC), associate professor Stephen Trumble, Ph.D. (Baylor), professor Shane Kanatous, Ph.D. (Colorado State University), wildlife biologist Mike Goebel, Ph.D. (NOAA), and professor Daniel Crocker, Ph.D. (Sonoma State University), the PIs and Kienle (a graduate student and postdoctoral researcher at the time) set out with one shared goal: to learn more about leopard seals. Over the course of two years, the research group studied 22 leopard seals off the Western Antarctic Peninsula, an area rapidly warming and changing. They weighed and measured each seal and followed each seal's activities and dive patterns using satellite/GPS tags.
In the study published in Frontiers of Marine Science - "Plasticity in the morphometrics and movements of an Antarctic apex predator, the leopard seal" -- Kienle (first author) and the team documented the flexible behaviors and traits that may offer leopard seals the resilience needed to survive the extreme climate and environmental disturbances occurring around Antarctica.

This study greatly increases our understanding of leopard seals' life history, spatial patterns and diving behavior," Kienle said. "We show that these leopard seals have high variability (or, flexibility) in these different traits. Across the animal kingdom, variability is vital for animals adapting and responding to changes in their environment, so we're excited to see high variability in this Antarctic predator."