Project Information
Collaborative Research: Foraging Ecology and Physiology of the Leopard Seal
Short Title:
Leopard Seal Foraging
Start Date:
End Date:
This research project 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. The project will examine the physiology and behavior of leopard seals to in an effort to determine their ability to respond to potential changes in their habitat and foraging areas. Using satellite tracking devices the team will examine the movement and diving behavior of leopard seals and couple this information with measurements of their physiological capacity. The project will determine whether leopard seals- who feed on diverse range of prey- are built differently than their deep diving relatives the Weddell and elephant seal who feed on fish and squid. The team will also determine whether leopard seals are operating at or near their physiological capability to determine how much, if any, ?reserve capacity? they might have to forage and live in changing environments. A better understanding of their home ranges, movement patterns, and general behavior will also be informative to help in managing human-leopard seal interactions. The highly visual nature of the data and analysis for this project lends itself to public and educational display and outreach, particularly as they relate to the changing Antarctic habitats. The project will use the research results to educate the public on the unique physiological and ecological adaptations to extreme environments seen in diving marine mammals, including adaptations to exercise under low oxygen conditions and energy utilization, which affect and dictate the lifestyle of these exceptional organisms. The results of the project will also contribute to the broader understanding that may enhance the aims of managing marine living resources.

The leopard seal is an apex predator in the Antarctic ecosystem. This project seeks to better understand the ability of the leopard seal to cope with a changing environment. The project will first examine the foraging behavior and habitat utilization of leopard seals using satellite telemetry. Specifically, satellite telemetry tags will be used to obtain dive profiles and movement data for individuals across multiple years. Diet and trophic level positions across multiple temporal scales will then be determined from physiological samples (e.g., blood, vibrissae, blubber fatty acids, stable isotopes, fecal matter). Oceanographic data will be integrated with these measures to develop habitat models that will be used to assess habitat type, habitat utilization, habitat preference, and home range areas for individual animals. Diet composition for individual seals will be evaluated to determine whether specific animals are generalists or specialists. Second, the team will investigate the physiological adaptations that allow leopard seals to be apex predators and determine to what extent leopard seals are working at or near their physiological limit. Diving behavior and physiology of leopard seals will be evaluated (for instance the aerobic dive limit for individual animals and skeletal muscle adaptations will be determined for diving under hypoxic conditions). Data from time-depth recorders will be used to determine foraging strategies for individual seals, and these diving characteristics will be related to physiological variables (e.g., blood volume, muscle oxygen stores) to better understand the link between foraging behavior and physiology. The team will compare myoglobin storage in swimming muscles associated with both forelimb and hind limb propulsion and the use of anaerobic versus aerobic metabolic systems while foraging.
Person Role
Costa, Daniel Investigator and contact
Kienle, Sarah Technical Contact
Trumble, Stephen J Investigator
Kanatous, Shane Investigator
Antarctic Organisms and Ecosystems Award # 1644256
Antarctic Organisms and Ecosystems Award # 1644004
Antarctic Organisms and Ecosystems Award # 1643575
AMD - DIF Record(s)
Deployment Type
Cape Shirreff, Livingston Island field camp
Data Management Plan
None in the Database
Product Level:
1 (processed data)
  1. Kienle, S.S., Goebel, M.E., LaBrecque, E., Borras-Chavez, R., Trumble, S.J., Kanatous, S.B., Crocker, D.E. & Costa, D.P. (2022) Plasticity in the morphometrics and movements of an Antarctic apex predator, the leopard seal. Frontiers in Marine Science, 9 (doi:10.3389/fmars.2022.976019)
  2. Charapata, P., Clark, C.T., Miller, N., Kienle, S.S., Costa, D.P., Goebel, M.E., Gunn, H., Sperou, E.S., Kanatous, S.B., Crocker, D.E., Borras-Chavez, R. & Trumble, S.J. (2022) Whiskers provide time-series of toxic and essential trace elements, Se:Hg molar ratios, and stable isotope values of an apex Antarctic predator, the leopard seal. Sci Total Environ, 854, 158651. (doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2022.158651)
  3. Foster-Dyer, R. T. N., Goetz, K. T., Pinkerton, M. H., Iwata, T., Holser, R. R., Michael, S. A., Pritchard, C., Childerhouse, S., Rotella, J., Federwisch, L., Costa, D. P., & LaRue, M. A. (2023). First observations of Weddell seals foraging in sponges in Erebus Bay, Antarctica. Polar Biology, 46(7), 611–621. (doi:10.1007/s00300-023-03149-1)
  4. Favilla, A. B., Horning, M., & Costa, D. P. (2021). Advances in thermal physiology of diving marine mammals: The dual role of peripheral perfusion. Temperature, 9(1), 46–66. (doi:10.1080/23328940.2021.1988817)
  5. Costa, D. P., & Favilla, A. B. (2023). Field physiology in the aquatic realm: ecological energetics and diving behavior provide context for elucidating patterns and deviations. Journal of Experimental Biology, 226(20). (doi:10.1242/jeb.245832)

This project has been viewed 33 times since May 2019 (based on unique date-IP combinations)