Leopard Seal Kills Scientist in Antarctica

James Owen in England
for National Geographic News
August 6, 2003

The death of a British marine biologist in Antarctica last month [July 22] is thought to be the first human fatality caused by a leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx). But scientists fear further seal attacks as the number of people working in the region continues to rise.

Kirsty Brown was dragged underwater by the seal while snorkeling near Rothera research station on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Horrified colleagues from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) scrambled a rescue boat and managed to pull Brown from the water. Despite trying to resuscitate her for an hour, the station doctor was unable to save the 28-year-old.

The BAS has now launched a full investigation into the incident.

Linda Capper, spokesperson for the BAS, said, "This was a completely unprecedented event. Kirsty is the first person we know of to have been killed by a leopard seal. We don't know why she was attacked.

"Our scientists have been diving and snorkeling in Antarctica for over 30 years and we've never experienced anything like this."

However, scientists are worried that increased human activity in Antarctica could lead to more life-threatening encounters with leopard seals.

Ian Boyd, director of the Sea Mammal Research Unit in Scotland, said, "There may be a process going on in Antarctica where these animals, because of their growing exposure to man, are becoming a greater danger."

Leopard seals rank alongside killer whales as Antarctica's top predator. Named after their spotted coats and fearsome jaws, leopard seals have large, reptilian heads and streamlined bodies. They propel themselves using powerful fore-flippers, reaching speeds of 25 miles per hour (40 kilometers per hour). Females grow larger than males, weighing up to 990 pounds (450 kilograms) and measuring over 13 feet (4 meters) in length.

Penguin Prey

The varied diet of these seals is reflected in their unusual tooth structure. As well as having large canines for dealing with bigger prey, their cheek teeth are serrated, which enables them to strain krill from the water. They also eat fish, penguins—and other seals. They tend to target crabeater and fur seals, but also juvenile Weddell, Ross, and southern Elephant seals.

Leopard seal feeding behavior is most easily seen when preying on penguins. The captured bird is thrashed about on the water until its skin peels away. The remaining carcass is then eaten.

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