Leopard Seal: It Will Rip Your Face Off

On May 10, 2014 by Tim Newman

Adelie Penguin Looking in Leopard Seal's Mouth

The leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx) is an underwater murdering machine of the Southern Hempisphere. Its only predator is the killer whale, and even they attack them infrequently. The leopard seal can live for a quarter of a century or more and will eat pretty much anything it can catch.

They average about 3 m in length and weigh about half a tonne. The front of a leopard seal’s mouth is designed to attack and kill, but the molars at the back of their mouths interlock in a fashion that allows them to filter feed on krill. So they’ve got the best of both gastronomic worlds really.

Leopard Seal - teeth

Unlike other seal species Leopard seals are solitary beasts only really coming together when it’s time to procreate. They’re incredibly bold and inquisitive creatures and have been known to semi-kill penguins and play with them in a kind of macabre demonstration of power. Their ability to open their jaws 160 degrees is unique among seal species and enables them to pretty much get a grip on any prey item they fancy.

Leopard Seal

Waiting fully submerged by the edge of ice sheets, the leopard seal awaits it’s penguin victims. Once one of the hapless birds enters the water the seal grabs its feet and shakes it violently, bashing it on the surface of the water until it’s dead. It then continues to wang it about, ripping it into manageable chunks.

Attacks on Humans

Leopard Seal - killing penguin

Leopard seal attacks on humans aren’t too common but then there’s not that many humans in their neck of the woods, not sensible ones any way. But they do happen:

Thomas Orde-Lees (1877–1958), a member of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–1917 was attacked by a 3.7 m long leopard seal. Another member of the expedition shot the animal and saved his life.

Leopard Seal - inside mouth

Gareth Wood, a Scottish explorer got a couple of bites when a leopard seal tried to drag him off the ice in 1985. He was only saved by his companions who repeatedly kicked it in the head with their spiky crampon boots.

Leopard Seal - camera man

Kirsty Brown became the first known human fatality of a leopard seal in 2003 when she was snorkeling. The seal dragged her about 60 m down and killed her.

Leopard Seal growling

Leopard Seal” by cyfer13 – IMG_1968. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Not all human interactions with leopard seals have been quite so bloody though. National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen had what turned out to be quite a loving meet and greet with one of these killing machines:


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