February 2, 2009

Leopard seal: The Penguin Killing Machines

Leopard Seals

A photographer falls under the spell of Antarctica's leopard seals.

Of all the seals in the world, only one, the leopard seal, has the
reputation of a true hunter, a top predator. At up to 12 feet (four
meters) long and more than a thousand pounds (450 kilograms), it moves
with surprising agility and speed, often along the edges of ice floes,
patrolling for penguins and other prey. "Sea-leopards, " early explorers called them. A "fierce, handsome brute," wrote Frank Worsley, Sir Ernest Shackleton's skipper on the famous 1914 Endurance
expedition. The name comes from the seal's patterned skin, which
Worsley described as "a fawn coat spotted all over with brown markings."

Leopard Seals: Deadly Beauty

Join photographer Paul Nicklen in the underwater world of this aggressive yet playful creature.

A powerful young seal toys with a gentoo penguin. Leopard seals are
opportunistic hunters, taking krill, fish, squid, and other seals as
well as penguins.

Going to sea for the first time, gentoo chicks linger on snowy Pleneau
Island as the last of their down is replaced by waterproof feathers.

This seal appeared out of nowhere, propelled by curiosity and powerful
flippers. Solitary as adults, leopard seals roam so widely in the pack
ice that little is known of their biology or even their numbers.
Estimates range from 200,000 to 400,000.

More frightening than the canines of the large female was the deep
jackhammer sound she let loose that rattled through my chest. She was
warning off another leopard seal that had snuck behind me. It
worked-the visitor moved on.

Ripped Apart

In a death shake, the large female shreds a penguin chick by
whipping it from side to side. It took 1/2000 of a second to freeze the
action; at the time all I saw was a splash and storm petrels and gulls
gathering for scraps. This efficient killing machine prizes above all
else penguin stomachs stuffed with krill.

The large female dives to eat her prey. Because leopard seals eat
whatever is available, scientists track their diets to help gauge
changes in the food web caused by global warming. The Antarctic
Peninsula is one of the most rapidly warming places on Earth. By
chemically analyzing a seal's whiskers, scientists can glean roughly
three years of feeding patterns.

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