Too little known of species to predict seal’s return

Krista Hupman
Krista Hupman
There is "absolutely" no guarantee that the 2m young adult male leopard seal that visited Oamaru four times in August will return, Niwa marine mammal biologist and researcher Dr Krista Hupman, of Wellington, says.

The apex predator left Oamaru Harbour this week after appearing to favour a boat ramp next to Oamaru’s Normanby Wharf as a place to haul out. But because so little was known about the species in New Zealand, Dr Hupman said, scientists did not know the animals’ behavioural patterns.

"We really can’t say. They could just disappear and be gone and maybe go back to the Antarctic, or it could go somewhere else in New Zealand and pop up and we may never know about it again," she said.

The education, conservation and scientific research group dedicated to the species was challenging accepted belief only 15 individuals visited New Zealand annually and instead was suggesting that the species was resident in New Zealand.

"It’s basically just been there’s been an absence of information. And therefore we’ve just relied on that absence meaning that they’re not here. But it’s actually really that nobody’s had a look before and recorded them before."

And while there had been speculation that the predator was a regular visitor to Oamaru because of its abundance of little penguins, Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony research scientist Dr Philippa Agnew said having the animal was "part of nature".

"They [apex predators] would be visiting here normally," she said.

"That balance of natural levels of predation that would normally be occurring, I’m all for it.

"If there’s those sorts of predators coming and going that’s a good thing, definitely. It’s an indication that the marine environment is doing well."

The leopard seal left Oamaru mid-week with a wound that could have been a self-inflicted from feeding on prey with a barb.

In Wellington recently, a leopard seal that was thought to have been attacked by a dog was later determined to have been injured by a stingray barb.

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