Leopard seals are to be identified | Polarjournal
Leopard selas are massive animals with a length of almost 3 meters and an average weight of 350 kilos. While they only rest on the ice and on land, they spend most of their time in the water and are fast and agile hunters with a wide range of prey. In the summer, krill is the main food on the menu, but penguins and other seals are not spurned. Picture: Michael Wenger

The leopard seal is not only at the top of the Antarctic food web, but also on the wish list of animals to see for tourists and guides. The seal fascinates by its strength and elegance in the water, while it appears rather ponderous on the ice and on land. There are also many rumors and myths surrounding the animal, which is a reflection of the limited knowledge about this top predator. To learn more about the way of life and especially the migrations of leopard seals, three polar guides have teamed up with experts to develop an identification catalogue for the Antarctic predator.

“The main conservation issue that faces the Leopard seal is the reduction in krill stocks”

Pippa Low, marine biologist and polar guide

Pippa Low, who has been a polar guide on expedition ships in Antarctica for many years, and her colleagues Sara Jenner and Felicity Johnson have taken it upon themselves to identify leopard seals and collect the information in a catalogue to learn more about the animals’ migratory habits. “In general, we hope to better understand the population and dynamics of leopard seals,” explains Pippa Low, who studied marine biology at the prestigious Stirling University and has worked with various marine mammal species for years. “We want to understand their habitat use and study their movement patterns, both small-scale and large-scale. There is so much we still don’t know about them. Their population is widely dispersed and because they spend a lot of time in the water, they are very difficult to survey.” In addition, the researchers are also concerned with the protection of the most important Antarctic representative, krill. “The main conservation issues that faces the Leopard seal is the reduction in krill stocks. The more we know about habitat use and population size, the better we can protect their resources.”

The project lives from the pictures that are sent to the initiators or uploaded directly on the website “happywhale.com”. At the moment, the identification is still done by hand on the basis of the spot patterns on the sides of the faces of the leopard seal and the assessment has already delivered first successes. Image: screenshot from www.happywhale.com

“I love and understand the possibilities of this non-invasive examination technique.”

Pippa Low, marine biologist and polar guide

That is why the biologist and her colleagues collect pictures of leopard seals for identification. A similar project with whales has been run successfully for several years with the Citizen Science project “Happywhale.com” by Ted Cheeseman. There, images and position data of whales are collected, the images are compared and the animals are precisely identified on the basis of individual characteristics. Based on the comparison of the different position data, a map with the migration routes of the individual animals can be created. The same is now to be achieved for leopard seals. When asked why a whale website in particular was chosen, Pippa Low says: “The platform that brings you some of the most incredible matches of humpbacks ever seen. It’s unique in its capabilities and an incredible way to collaborate with scientists and citizens. I had helped Ted match humpback whales in the past and have also worked on numerous photo-identification programs in the past. I love and understand the possibilities of this non-invasive study technique.”

In addition to the “Happywhale” team, Pippa Low and her colleagues have already been able to get several scientific institutions on board, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA, the British Antarctic Survey and the New Zealand leopard seal project. They are already working regionally on leopard seal projects and have been able to provide some visual material. But support also came from other organisations and companies such as Oceanwide Expeditions and other tour operators, the IAATO or the Polar Tourism Guides Association.

For identification, the researchers need images of leopard seals with as detailed position and time data as possible. Equally important is the name of the ship and the position, in order to be able to match the data better. Pictures like this one work best, with the face visible on the left and/or right and the half of the neck to see the spots. The pattern is as individual as a fingerprint. Picture: Michael Wenger

The idea to focus on leopard seals did come to Pippa Low earlier. But due to the cancelled seasons as a guide, the idea turned into a project. “After COVID grounded us all, but the desire for the polar regions remained, I needed a project. And because it got big very quickly, I had to get help from colleagues. Sara and Felicity now support me in matching everyone’s submissions,” Pippa Low tells us.

“But we need a lot more pictures for that.”

Pippa Low, marine biologist and polar guide

“After researching the use of photo ID with Leopard Seals, it was clearly done successfully on a regional level, but has not been attempted at a large scale.” This is exactly where the strength of such a Citizen Science project lies: tourists and guides cover a larger geographical area than is possible for scientists. But together with their data, the population of leopard seals in large parts of Antarctica can be determined. Currently, the identification is still done by hand or eye. “In the end we would like to attempt to establish what Ted has successfully done with the Humpbacks already; automated matching utilising AI. This would allow faster identification of individuals, and would make managing a catalogue at an ocean basin scale, much easier. Of course, in order to do this, we need lots of photos.,” says Pippa Low.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal


For their project, the three researchers need as many photographs as possible by all kinds of people. Especially shots showing the face of leopard seals from the left and right side are needed. Anyone who would like to support the project with their own pictures can take part. In addition to the picture, it is also important to provide information on the location and the date the picture was taken in order to be able to position the animal precisely and thus learn more about the migration in the event of any match during comparison. Also included should be the name of the ship you were traveling with and the position (if available from the logbooks). Anyone who would like to participate can either upload their images with full details to “happywhale.com/submitmedia” (LOGIN required) or send us a message which we will forward to the researchers. In case of a hit or if the identified animal is sighted again, the owners of the picture will be informed. This allows you to continue to follow “your” leopard seal. All data will be treated with the utmost confidentiality and will not be used for anything else.

On behalf of Pippa Low, Sara Jenner, Felicity Johnson, and all the leopard seals, we say “Thank you!”

Link to Happywhale’s website: www.happywhale.com

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