The truth is in the tooth

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by Kate C
Publish date
30 October 2012
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Leopard seals have jagged, three-lobed postcanine teeth at the backs of their jaws that fit together closely, almost like pieces of a jigsaw. These teeth were long presumed to allow these seals to sieve krill from the water, but the exact mechanism remained a mystery until now.

Leopard seal with mouth open A leopard seal at Taronga Zoo showing its teeth. The leopard seal has large canine teeth at the front of its jaw, and sieve-like cheek teeth at the back.
Image: Erich Fitzgerald
Source: Museum Victoria
 

skull and tooth of leopard seal The skull and postcanine tooth of the leopard seal. This detail comes from a working drawing in pencil, watercolour and indian ink that Becker made in preparation for Prodromus of the Zoology of Victoria.
Image: Ludwig Becker
Source: Museum Victoria
 

David Hocking and Dr Alistair Evans of Monash University, and Dr Erich Fitzgerald of Museum Victoria, have shown for the first time exactly how leopard seals can eat large prey, like penguins and seal pups, as well as small prey like krill. By observing live leopard seals at Taronga Zoo, their ingenious study reports that leopard seals use suction to draw small prey items into their mouths, then expel seawater out through the 'sieves' of their peculiar cheek teeth.

In this video, these scientists report their findings, as published last week in the journal Polar Biology.

 

Links:

David P. Hocking, Alistair R. Evans & Erich M. G. Fitzgerald. 'Leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx) use suction and filter feeding when hunting small prey underwater' in Polar Biology, published online 29 October 2012.

Caught and Coloured: Leopard seal

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