U.S. Department of Commerce


Date of this Version



Published in J. Zool., Lond. (1999) 249, 97-109.


The hunting behavior of leopard seals Hydrurga leptonyx was monitored opportunistically at Seal Island, South Shetland Islands, during the austral summers from 1986/87 to 1994/95. Leopard seals used several methods to catch Antarctic fur seal pups Arctocephalus gazella and chinstrap penguins Pygoscelis antarctica, and individuals showed different hunting styles and hunting success. One to two leopard seals per year were responsible for an average of 60% of observed captures of fur seal pups. Leopard seals preyed on penguins throughout the summer, but preyed on fur seal pups only between late December and mid-February. Hunting behavior differed significantly between different locations on the island; fur seals were hunted only at one colony, and penguins were hunted in several areas. The relative abundance of prey types, size of prey in relation to predator, and specialization of individual leopard seals to hunt fur seal prey probably influence individual prey preferences among leopard seals. On five occasions, two leopard seals were seen together on Seal Island. Possible interpretations of the relationship between the interacting leopard seals included a mother-offspring relationship, a consorting male-female pair, and an adult leopard seal followed by an unrelated juvenile. In two incidents at Seal Island, two leopard seals were observed interacting while hunting: one seal captured fur seal pups and appeared to release them to the other seal. Observations of leopard seals interacting during hunting sessions were difficult to confirm as co-operative hunting, but they strongly implied that the two seals were not agonistic toward one another. The hunting success of individual leopard seals pursuing penguins or fur seals is probably high enough for co-operative hunting not to become a common hunting strategy; however, it may occur infrequently when it increases the hunting productivity of the seals.