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Discovery Magazine 1/1/2009

The Leopard of the Sea

Dotted with black blotches on its otherwise grayish-white underside, the most ferocious seal in the pack ice of the Antarctic is appropriately named Leopard seal. The only seal to prey on other seal species, the Leopard seal is a marvel of divine design. With a large, powerful, almost reptilian-looking head, no ears, a sinuous neck, a slender body, and long, powerful flippers, Leopard seals are designed for speed. Adult leopard seals can reach lengths up to 12 feet and weigh over 750 pounds. Their long, streamlined bodies have smooth skin that helps them slice easily and swiftly through water. Their nostrils are positioned on top of their muzzle—perfect for breathing in a watery environment. Their bodies are insulated from frigid waters by a thick layer of fat called blubber.

Another masterfully engineered feature of this carnivore is its impressive hunting capability. The Leopard seal diet consists of penguins, fish, squid, krill, and various species of other seals. Hungry Leopard seals may burst through a spot of ice near a penguin rookery in an attempt to grasp a penguin chick above. Or, they may lie in wait by an icy ledge, pouncing on the first penguin to dive into the water. With its huge mouth and massive lower jaw, the Leopard seal is equipped with long, complex teeth. Its sharply-pointed molars are well-designed for cutting and tearing. The seal has uniquely shaped cheek teeth that act as a strainer, allowing the seal to strain krill out of seawater. Combined with exceptional sight and smell, Leopard seals are among the skilled predators of the Antarctic.

God’s creatures are so amazing and mysterious in their design that scientists still have much to learn about the Leopard seal—from its reproductive behaviors, to its migration habits, to its place in the greater ecosystem. The only known animal to prey upon Leopard seals is the Orca—the killer whale. Leopard seals come on land only during the breeding season, and then only in pairs or small groups. Females dig a hole in the ice where they give birth to a single pup. The female protects the pup until it can take care of itself. The Leopard seal is yet another example of the ingenious invention and skillful marvels of God.

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