Able to grow longer than 11 feet and more than 1,200 pounds, the leopard seal is a massive and fearsome aquatic predator. The animal is the dominant predator of Antarctica, for good reason. With its fast swimming speed, sharp teeth and strong jaws, the leopard seal can do serious damage to unsuspecting prey. When hunting game like penguins, the leopard seal feeds, literally, on the element of surprise. It's a much easier process when the leopard seal feasts on smaller prey like krill -- a relatively small crustacean that leopard seals eat more than anything else.
General Eating Habits
Penguins make up a very small portion of the average leopard seal's diet -- only about 10 percent. In fact, they eat smaller seals more often than they eat penguins, simply using their sharp teeth and strong jaws to tear them apart in the water. Most of a leopard seal's diet consists of krill, which it filters into its mouth using special lobes on either side. The process of hunting and killing krill requires little more than swallowing it up in large quantities while swimming.
Sneaking and Waiting
Leopard seals primarily hunt by hiding underneath the surface of the water. While penguins spend most of their time on ice, leopard seals live in the water and use it to their advantage. They swim along the ice's edge, staying below the surface and watching above for penguins to approach. This tactic is so reliable that penguins are known to wait until others in the group have shown it's safe.
Element of Surprise
While leopard seals generally swim faster than penguins, they try to save themselves the trouble of chasing prey by attacking with surprise. They seize on prey as soon as it enters the water. A leopard seal grabs a penguin in its jaws and shakes it hard, literally tearing it apart with its sharp teeth. They may not always wait until the penguin jumps into the water, either -- if the bird is close enough to the water's edge, a leopard seal may lunge out of the water and snatch it up in its jaws.
Land and Sea
In the water, a leopard seal is powerful and aerodynamic, making it a fast swimmer. The leopard seal can swim up to 24 mph, fast enough to catch almost any penguin. In fact, it's fast enough for the seal to launch itself out of the water, landing on the icy surface. This is useful for leaping up and grabbing prey as it climbs out of the water or even grabbing unsuspecting birds lingering near the edge. They are not as graceful on land as they are in the ocean, though, and generally flop about with a bit of awkward difficulty until they make their way back into the water.
Penguin image by Isobel Reid from Fotolia.com
Tom Ryan is a freelance writer, editor and English tutor. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in English writing, and has also worked as an arts and entertainment reporter with "The Pitt News" and a public relations and advertising copywriter with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.