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Know Your Seals


Leopard seals are carnivores in the Pinnipedia clade. Pinniped means ‘wing-footed’ and they share an ancestor with dogs, bears, racoons and mustelids.

There are 33 species of pinnipeds worldwide.

Pinnipeds are divided into three families:

1. Phocids
(True seals)

2. Otariids
(‘eared’ seals and sea lions)

3. Odobenids

Phocids (True seals/Earless Seals)

The True seals or earless seals include 19 species of seals. True seals are characterized by the absence of external ear pinnae. They are unable to rotate their hind flippers underneath their bodies and so, move on land in a caterpillar-like motion. In water, they use their front flippers for steering and their hind flippers for propulsion.

The species within this group display various degrees of sexual dimorphism. The largest species is the Southern Elephant Seal (Mirounga leonine) with males reaching up to 6 meters in length and 4000kg in weight. Females are much smaller measuring up to 3.7m in length and 1000kg. By contrast, the ringed seal – the smallest species of seal averages about 1.5m in length and 50 to 70kg in weight. Males and females are approximately the same size.

Otariids (Eared Seals/Fur seals/Sea lions)

There are 14 species of eared seals worldwide. The term otariid is derived from the Greek word otarion meaning “little ear.” Unlike ‘true’ seals, the have external ear pinnae. They have large fore flippers for swimming and can rotate their flippers underneath their bodies, giving them the ability to walk and climb on all fours on land. Eared seals have a polygynous mating system and pronounced sexual dimorphism.

Odobenids (Walruses)

The only living species in this family is the Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus). Walruses share many similarities with their relatives in other Pinniped families. The lack external ear pinnae and can rotate their flippers underneath their bodies, enabling them to walk on all fours.

Species of Pinniped commonly found in New Zealand


New Zealand Fur Seal (Arctocephalus forsteri)

New Zealand Fur Seal (Arctocephalus forsteri) on a rocky beach
New Zealand Fur Seals (Arctocephalus forsteri)
New Zealand Fur Seal (Arctocephalus forsteri) pups
Morphology + information Details
Distinguishing features Pointed snout with long whiskers and thick brown fur. Often seen climbing rocks
Length Adult females: 1.5m. Adult males: 2.5m
Weight Adult females: 30 – 50 kg. Adult males: 90 – 150 kg
Colour Grey to brown and lighter underneath. May appear black when wet
Coat Double layer coat, adult males may have a mane
Flippers Thickening where it joins body. Hind flippers rotate beneath them allowing them to walk on land
Family Otariidae
Mating season Mid November to Mid January. Delayed implantation
Pupping Season Mid November to Mid Jan. Females give birth to their pups and then mate
No. of Pups 1
Conservation status Of least concern
Distribution Widely distributed around the coast of New Zealand and Australia

New Zealand Sea Lion (Phocarctos hookeri)

Adult male New Zealand Seal Lion (Phocarctos hookeri)
Adult female New Zealand Sea Lion (Phocarctos hookeri)
New Zealand Sea Lion (Phocarctos hookeri) pup
Morphology + information Details
Distinguishing features Blunt snout, and short fur that comes in a range of colours from light tan to grey to dark brown. They are rarely seen on rocks.
Length Adult females: 1.8 – 2m. Adult males: 2.4 – 3.5m.
Weight Adult females: 85 – 160kg. Adult males: 320 – 460 kg
Colour Females: Lighter in colour, predominantly creamy grey with darker pigmentation around their flippers. Males: Black to Brown colour. Pups: Dark brown and paler around the head.
Coat Short fur and the males have a large mane
Flippers Large flippers. Hind flippers rotate beneath them allowing them to walk on land.
Family Otariidae
Mating season Occurs over the summer months
Pupping Season Early December to mid Jan
No. of Pups 1
Conservation status Nationally vulnerable
Distribution Auckland Islands, Campbell Island, Stewart Island, South Island New Zealand

True seals

Southern Elephant Seal (Mirounga leonina)

Southern Elephant seal (Mirounga leonina)
Southern Elephant seal (Mirounga leonina)
Southern Elephant seal (Mirounga leonina)
Morphology + information Details
Distinguishing features Long body and heavy build. Adult male is noticeably larger than female, with conspicuous proboscis (nose) during the breeding season.
Length Females are 2.8meters; males are 4.5 – 5.8meters.
Weight Females are 600-800kgs; males are 1,500 – 3,700kgs.
Colour Dark grey to rusty grey
Coat Hair Short and Stiff
Flippers Front flippers small in relation to body size. Cannot rotate hind flippers under body.
Family Phocidae
Mating season 18 days after birth of a pup. Delayed implantation.
Pupping Season Sept- Oct
No. of Pups 1
Conservation status Of least concern
Distribution Sub-Antarctic islands, and South America

Leopard Seal (Hydrurga Leptonyx)

Adult Leopard Seal (Hydrurga leptonyx)
Adult Leopard Seal (Hydrurga leptonyx) pup
Morphology + information Details
Distinguishing features Leopard seals have a head that may appear to be disproportionately large compared to their bodies. Powerful jaws and a broad mouth gape.
Length Adult Female: 3.6m; Adult Male: 3m
Weight Adult Female: 600kg; Adult Male: 270kg
Colour Silver to dark blue-grey, with pale white belly. Dark areas variably spotted darker grey and black.
Coat Hair Short and Dense.
Flippers Front flippers long and broad, near the centre of the body. Hind flippers are short and fan out to be wide and are used for locomotion in the water.
Family Phocidae
Mating season Nov – Jan
Pupping Season Sept – Jan
No. of Pups 1
Conservation status Of least concern
Distribution Antarctica and southern coasts of all south hemisphere continents and southern islands

Tips for spotting the difference

1. Shape of the head

Leopard seals have a large round head like a rugby ball. Fur seals have a pointy snout and sea lions have a blunt snout. Elephant seals have a head like a soccer ball.

The various head shapes of different seal species

2. Presence/absence of ears

Leopard seals are true seals and don’t have external ears, neither do elephant seals. Fur seals and sea lions are eared seals and have little ears.

The presence or absence of external ears in the different seal species

3. Colour of fur

Leopard seals have a dark grey back and a light belly with black spots. Fur seals are dark brown. Sea lions range in colour from dark brown to grey to a light cream colour, and don’t have black spots. Elephant seals  also range in colour from mid to light browns and greys and males often have scaring that appear lighter in colour.

4. Size

Leopard seals can grow up to 3.5m in length and are generally at least 2m in size. Fur seals are the smallest and range in size from less than a meter to 1.7 meters. Sea lions are in between most are over a meter but only grow to 2 meters. Southern elephant seals are the largest seal in the world and can be 3.7m long. lor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo.

Species, in order from left to right: New Zealand Fur Seal, New Zealand Sea Lion, Leopard Seal, Elephant Seal
The length of different seal species as an adult

5. Movement

Leopard seals are ‘true’ seals and cannot walk on their flippers instead they move like a caterpillar, crunching and lengthening their body along the ground. Elephant seals are also true seals and move in a similar motion. Fur Seals and seal lions are ‘eared’ seals and walk on all fours.


Click here to report your sighting so we can continue to track the behaviour and movements of leopard seals in New Zealand.