New Zealand’s newest citizens like the solitary life, have leopard-like markings, and can each weigh up to 600kg.
And this week they’ve gone from being officially classified as vagrants, to residents in New Zealand.
It’s a huge step forward for the leopard seal according to NIWA cetacean biologist Dr Krista Hupman, who largely attributes this success to Owha who made the Waitemata Harbour her home in 2012.
Leopard seal resting at Owhiro Bay, Wellington. NIWA Cetacean Biologist/Ecologist Dr Krista Hupman has helped getting leopard seals a new residential status in New Zealand waters. [Photo: Dave Allen]
For the past seven years, Owha, a female leopard seal, has been moving between Dunedin, the Bay of Plenty, Auckland and Whangarei sleeping on pontoons and wallowing in the shallows. She prompted Dr Hupman to research the prevalence and residency of leopard seals in New Zealand to find out if they were truly vagrant visitors to New Zealand shores.
Leopard seals are primarily known as an Antarctic species, widely distributed throughout the Antarctic pack ice and second only to killer whales in the list of Antarctica’s top predators.
“New Zealand was thought to be well out of their normal range yet their numbers have been increasing here and animals like Owha have been staying here for a number of years,” Dr Hupman said.
Together with fellow researcher Dr Ingrid Visser, Dr Hupman set up LeopardSeals.org, a not-for-profit organisation established to foster more understanding about leopard seals. Dr Hupman also set up a 0800 LEOPARD hotline for the public to report sightings of leopard seals. The information enabled the identification of 216 individuals who had visited New Zealand shores - 74 in 2018 alone.
A leopard seal resting at Owhiro Bay, Wellington. [Photo: Hamish McCormick, NIWA]
Dr Hupman and the LeopardSeals.org team also scoured historical records from newspapers and museums and compiled more than 3000 sighting records, including some from Māori middens, showing leopard seals had been part of the New Zealand’s native fauna for centuries.
“Such an extensive database enabled us to show that not only were leopard seals living next to our cities, but they could be found all year round and in predictable locations,” Dr Hupman said.
She also found that some leopard seals had remained in New Zealand for successive years and that three births have been documented on the New Zealand mainland.
Leopard seals also had a moment in the world spotlight in February when Dr Hupman’s team at NIWA discovered a USB stick in a leopard seal droppings or scat. The scats are collected so researchers can learn more about what they eat and their overall health - all part of learning more about why these animals may be visiting New Zealand in larger numbers.
Dr Egan and her team will be studying the ear bones of glass eels to learn more about their spawning locations and larval oceanic movements. In this new project, migrating female eels will be tagged and their location communicated to satellites to help pinpoint their spawning grounds in the western Pacific Ocean.
The Department of Conservation announced its latest Marine Mammal Threat Classification System Report today, and Dr Hupman is delighted with the change to the leopard seal status.
“This is a positive outcome for Owha and other leopard seals in New Zealand. For Owha, she can safely spend her days sunning on the marina pontoons. For New Zealanders, we are extremely fortunate to have what was previously known as an Antarctic species as a resident member of our unique biodiversity”.
“It just shows what New Zealanders working together can achieve”, said Hupman, who attributes the success of the status change to the dedicated citizen scientists and researchers around New Zealand who reported sightings and volunteered their time to assist with this important work.
“Our next challenge is to understand their role in our ecosystem and to educate people about this magnificent addition to our whanau.”
To report a leopard seal sighting:
Call 0800 LEOPARD (0800 5367273) – record the date, time and location and if possible, take a photograph. As leopard seals are a wild animals, the Department of Conservation recommends staying at least 20 m away from any seals you encounter.