Leopard Seal Foraging Ecology and Physiology

We are in the process of preparing for a potential field effort in Antarctica investigating the foraging ecology and physiology of leopard seals! We will update this blog as we move forward, so stay tuned for more details.

A bit more detail about our project…

The climate of the Antarctic Peninsula is warming, resulting in less sea ice. These environmental changes may be pushing many Antarctic organisms beyond their normal physiological and behavior capabilities. The leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx) is an important Antarctic top predator but we know relatively little about its physiology and behavior. Leopard seals consume a wide range of prey, including krill, cephalopods, fish, seabirds, and even other seals. Antarctica’s changing climate will likely alter the availability of leopard seal prey and thus affect the foraging patterns of leopard seals.

The focus of our research is to understand the ability of leopard seals to adapt and respond to this changing habitat by examining their foraging behavior and physiology. Using satellite tracking devices, we will examine the movement and diving behavior of leopard seals and couple this with measurements of their physiological capacity. Our research is analogous to studies in sports physiology or medicine where researchers match an athlete’s performance to their physiological make up. Similarly, we will determine whether leopard seals (that consume many diverse prey types) are built differently than their seal relatives, the Weddell seals and southern elephant seals (that consume fish and squid). We will also determine whether leopard seals are operating at or near their physiological capability to determine if they have any “reserve capacity” to buffer against the changing environment.

This research is a multidisciplinary effort that brings together a diverse team of scientists from multiple institutions together to understand the foraging behavior and physiology of leopard seals and their role in the Southern Ocean food web. While rare, interactions between humans and leopard seals have had tragic consequences, with at least one fatal attack on a human diver, and interactions between divers and leopard seals are becoming more common. A better understanding of leopard seal home ranges, movement patterns, and behavior will be informative to managing human-seal interactions. We will also use our results to educate the public on the unique ecological and physiological adaptations of diving marine mammals to extreme environments, which affect and dictate the lifestyles of these exceptional organisms.

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