As the only two Leopard Seals to be cared for by a Zoo anywhere in the world, Casey and Sabine, Taronga Zoos’ Leopard Seals are providing researchers with a unique opportunity to study and learn about one of the Antarctic's top order predators.
Researchers from the Australian Marine Mammal Research Centre (AMMRC) have been studying the growth rates of the Leopard Seals' whiskers. Why? Just like a sample of our hair can tell a story about our past so can the whiskers of seals. Researchers hope to see how the diet of Leopard Seals has changed over the years by analysing the whiskers of our seals, with other whiskers collected by field researchers that are up to 100 years old.
To do this researchers need to understand how quickly whiskers grow. This is where Casey and Sabine provide invaluable information. We train these amazing marine creatures to place their head through a custom made ‘whisker board’ which allows researchers to photograph and document their whisker growth over time. This provides a benchmark for seal whisker growth that could certainly not be achieved with wild seal populations.
There is a downside to the research though. Leopard Seals are known for producing a relatively large amount of mucus or snot from their nose which makes it a bit of a dirty job for us keepers working so close to their nose!
It is hoped that from this research we can gain an insight into how seals and other Antarctic species have changed their diet. Perhaps their feeding patterns are reflecting changes in the presence of fish, krill and even penguins over the last century as the oceans continue to feel the added pressures of environmental change and commercial fishing operations.
- Keeper Brad