Scientists Are Looking For The Owner Of A USB Stick That Was Eaten By A Leopard Seal


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

leopard seal

Is this the self-satisfied smile of a leopard seal that just pooped out a USB stick? Certainly one did in New Zealand, and it still works. Joshua Daniel/Shutterstock

Animal droppings provide a wealth of information to zoologists, but has any contained quite as much data as one left behind by a leopard seal that included a fully working USB stick? If you think you might be the owner, New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) would like to hear from you.

Leopard seals are an important part of New Zealand's marine ecosystem, traveling all the way there from Antarctica, where they usually spend the summer. In an effort to track their health, behavior, and diet, a team at NIWA run the leopard seal program, where dedicated volunteers collect their feces, known as scat, and send them to NIWA who analyze them.


One scat was collected on Oreti Beach, Invercargill. There is an, err, backlog, of scats to process, so this one sat in a freezer at NIWA for over a year. When volunteer Jodie Warren thawed it out she found a piece of plastic inside. At first depressed the pollution we are putting in the ocean might be reaching even Antarctica, Warren soon realized it was an apparently undamaged USB stick.

The stick was dried out just in case and, to the team's amazement, not only turned out to be in full working order, but to contain photos and video of frolicking seals. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing if the seals shown include the one that ate it.


NIWA are keen to find the owner. However, identifying information is limited. Besides images of waving sea lions like the one below, a blue kayak and red boots, distinctively shaped hills in the background confirm the footage was taken at Porpoise Bay lagoon, 800 kilometers (500 miles) away from where the stick was found.

If you know this sea lion, you're probably the owner of the USB stick. Photographer unknown

The leopard seal program's Dr Krista Hupman told IFLScience the program was motivated by desire to understand why more leopard seals appear to be spending time in New Zealand waters year round, rather than being purely winter visitors. There is a push to get the species reclassified from vagrant to resident.

Hupman added it is unusual to find macroscopic plastic items in leopard seal scats, unlike some other marine animals, but microplastics are increasingly common.


If you recognize the kayak, or maybe the sea lion video, NIWA is happy to return your stick, but with one proviso – they want you to get them another leopard seal scat, which might be hard if the images were taken on a once-in-a-lifetime visit to New Zealand.

Since NIWA tweeted the tale on Tuesday, New Zealand time, many people have come forward claiming the stick is their's. Hupman told IFLScience NIWA are sorting through the responses and hope to confirm the true owener soon.

Meanwhile, the Internet has not let the opportunity to go waste. 






Plenty of people are seeking to know the brand, since its resilience is now beyond question. Hupman said the program are reaching out to the manufacturers to discuss sponsorship, and are keeping it secret until then.

Our favorite, however, was one individual who adapted Sting's classic.


Even if it is not your USB, NIWA would love it if you could keep an eye out for leopard seals, and report (preferably with photographs) any sitings. Scats, which they describe as “good as gold” for researchers, if a bit more smelly, are even better, but they encourage collectors to keep a safe distance.