The combination of Antarctica's extreme climate, its isolated way of life and its deadly reputation makes the leopard one of the most difficult to study the top predators on Earth.
In the first study funded by the National Science Foundation, biologists set one common goal: to learn more about the leopards of the sea; for two years, the research team studied 22 sea leopards in the western Antarctic peninsula, an area that is rapidly heating and changing; they weighed and measured each seal and monitored each seal and diving model using satellite/GPS tags.
In a study published in the journal Frontiers of Marine Science, "The Fragility of Morphometrics and Movements of Antarctic Marine Predator — Marine Leopard", Kinle and his team documented the flexible behaviour of the species and features that can make the leopards of the sea sustainable to survive the extreme climatic and ecological conditions of Antarctica.
"We show that leopards have a high variability of different features. In the entire animal world, variability is vital for animals that adapt and respond to changes in the environment, so we are pleased to see the high variability of this Antarctic predator," Kinle notes.
One of the findings of the biologists was that adult female leopards were much larger than adult males; in fact, females were larger and longer than 1.5 times; the team measured one of the largest leopards ever in existence, an adult female known as "Bigonia", which weighed 540 kg; female-oriented sex dimorphism was unusual among marine mammals, but marine leopards were the most striking example of female-oriented dimorphism among 130 species.
According to the movement data, the leopard females spent more time "getting out" of the water to rest on ice or on land than the males. Two adult leopard females who participated in the study spent two weeks on ice in the middle of the ocean without eating or going into the water. Kinle and his colleagues assume that during this two-week period the female leopards give birth and feed their babies.
Male and female leopards sail for short and long distances in both coastal and open ocean habitats, one sea leopard sailed only 46 kilometres from where the team worked with the seal, remaining on and around the Antarctic Islands, but another seal passed 1,700 kilometres from the mosque site in the same period, reaching an island more than a thousand kilometres away.
Other seals can dive thousands of metres deep and hold their breath for more than 40 minutes; however, the research team recorded the longest and deepest dive ever registered for leopards by a male called "Dadpool", which dived 1256 metres in 25 minutes.