Leopard seals have built a bit of a reputation for being solitary creatures who, like Joey from Friends, do not share food. Or so we thought.
Drones recently captured footage of a king penguin colony in South Georgia. But to the surprise of researchers based at the University of Plymouth in the UK, the video clip also shows 36 leopard seals feasting together on a banquet of the (unlucky) penguins.
The footage is included in a study published in the journal Polar Biology.
As the researchers involved point out, leopard seals are usually antagonistic towards one another but will hunt alongside each other if forced to in areas of abundant prey. As with the colony of king penguins.
The scene that particularly shook the researchers was the sight of two seals not only eating close to each other but sharing the same carcass. It is the first time such a thing has been recorded, they say.
While the footage is exciting, the researchers have been quick to point out caveats to their discovery and say they are not sure if it is truly a case of cooperation for mutual benefit – or if they still saw each other as competition but were too scared to chase the other away, thus risking losing their meal completely.
Still, it highlights just how little we know about the lives of these mysterious creatures.
"Leopard seals are often portrayed as the villains – chasing fluffy penguins in Happy Feet and creating havoc in the Antarctic," said lead author James Robbins, a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Plymouth and formerly with the British Antarctic Survey, said in a statement.
"In reality, little is known about these enigmatic creatures, and these observations provide key insights into their behavior and social antics."
Part of the reason for this is their choice of locale – the frigid climes of the remote Antarctic. What's more, when they are seen, they are frequently alone or perched atop an unaccessible iceberg.
"I've personally had over 500 encounters with leopard seals and have never seen two animals being so tolerant of each other," Robbins added.
It is not the first time unusual behavior has been captured on film. Killer whales have been caught making waves to push seals off icebergs. On another occasion, leopard seals have been seen apparently feeding human divers.
Researchers involved in the current study suggest this feeding could be another example of cooperative feeding, the argument being that it is more energy expedient to share food than it is to try to defend their meal by chasing away competitors.
"The remoteness of Antarctic ecosystems can make it challenging to connect with the wildlife there, but this new footage provides a rare window into that world," co-author David Hocking from Monash University added.
"This study also provides a great example of how new technology is helping researchers to make close-hand observations of wild animals. By using a camera drone, the filmmakers were able to fly above the animals without disturbing them, revealing detailed behaviors that otherwise may have gone unnoticed to shore-based observers."