From Vagrant to Resident: occurrence, residency and births of leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx) in New Zealand waters

In contrast to previous reports that leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx) are rare vagrants to New Zealand, we show that this species is a regular member of the marine fauna of this region. We present a first analysis from the New Zealand Leopard Seal Database – an extensive collation of 2,711 records of leopard seals within New Zealand between 1200 and 2018. Of these records, 51.2% (n = 1,408) were photographic. Leopard seal sightings have increased over time and been reported in all seasons and regions of New Zealand. Sightings are predominantly of adult individuals of good or excellent body condition, which differs to previous hypotheses suggesting that leopard seals visiting New Zealand shores are primarily juvenile animals in poor health condition. A total of 176 unique individuals have been identified in the New Zealand Leopard Seal Catalogue between 2014 and 2018 and preliminary results indicate that numbers per annum have continued to increase over time. Three leopard seal births and a number of juvenile animals (34% of the NZ records) have been documented. Considering the information presented here and the current definitions in the New Zealand Threat Classification System, the threat status of leopard seals within New Zealand waters should be reclassified from Vagrant to Resident.