Leopard Seal vs Sea Lion: The Key Differences

Written by Jeremiah Wright
Updated: September 11, 2022
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Leopard seals and sea lions are both pinnipeds. Their classification tells us a lot about them since sea lions represent a subfamily, and leopard seals a species. These two aquatic creatures look similar at first glance. But if we analyze specific details, such as their size, colors, distribution, habitat, and even human interaction, we’ll discover they are different!

Moreover, they are both unique creatures with distinct behaviors and diets. While their lifespan is approximately the same, it isn’t influenced by the same factors. The threats imposed on leopard seals and sea lions are of different natures. Let’s find out how to distinguish leopard seals from sea lions!

Comparing Leopard Seal vs Sea Lion

Leopard seals and sea lions are both pinnipeds.
Key DifferencesLeopard SealSea Lion
SizeLength: 7.9-11.5 feet
Weight: 440-1,300 pounds
Length: 4.9-10.66 feet
Weight: 110-2,400 pounds
AppearanceRounded head, big snout, large mouths, flippers on all four feet; thin coat; dark gray or black head and back; white or light gray around the belly; black spots around the white parts; 32 teethEar flaps; coarse, short fur; manes; five claws; color depends on species, but can be reddish, brown, tan; 34-38 teeth
ClassificationA species of pinnipedsA subfamily of pinnipeds consisting of six species
Distribution and HabitatPrimarily inhabiting the Antarctic pack ice; spotted in Australia, New Zealand, South America, South AfricaWorldwide, from the subarctic to tropical waters, except for the northern Atlantic Ocean; living in coastal regions
Predators and threatsKiller whales, sharks, climate changeGreat white sharks, killer whales, humans
BehaviorSolitary Living in groups
Lifespan20-24 years20-30 years
Conservation statusLeast ConcernNear Threatened, Endangered, and Least Concern (depending on the species)

7 Key Differences between a Leopard Seal and a Sea Lion

The most important difference between leopard seals and sea lions is that they belong to different scientific classifications. Then, people can tell them apart through their sizes, appearances, diets, or habitats.

Let’s find out more about these differences in detail!

Leopard Seal vs Sea Lion: Size

Leopard Seal Teeth - Leopard Seal

Leopard seals can reach 12 feet long and weigh 1,300 pounds.


If we were to compare leopard seals and sea lions based on the average size listed above, it’s clear that leopard seals are larger than sea lions, while some sea lions can be heavier. Leopard seals can reach 12 feet long and weigh 1,320 pounds, which makes them one of the largest seals in the world.

By contrast, a sea lion’s size varies depending on the species. A study shows that Steller sea lions are the largest species, reaching approximately 10.66 feet (3.25 meters) in length. This proves that leopard seals are, indeed, larger. However, if we check the maximum weight a sea lion (Steller sea lion) can have, we get 2,469 pounds, which shows that it’s much heavier than leopard seals! On the other hand, sea lions can be quite small too. The Galapagos sea lions, for example, can be as small as 4.9 feet and weigh 110 pounds. 

Since these numbers are pretty varied and the sea lion average size is somewhat inconclusive because it includes the size of all six sea lion species, it’s difficult to state whether leopard seals are bigger than sea lions. 

Leopard Seal vs Sea Lion: Appearance

Largest seals - Steller Sea Lion

Sea lions have coarse fur of various lengths, depending on the species.

©Alexander Machulskiy/Shutterstock.com

At first glance, these two animals might look similar, but some things can help you distinguish them. Leopard seals have a rounded head, a large mouth, and a big snout. Their coat of fur is thin. A leopard seal’s head is dark gray or black. It has a white or light gray coat around the belly and black spots around these white parts.

Sea lions have coarse fur of various lengths, depending on the species. They have five claws on each front flipper. Their colors also depend on the species. For instance, California sea lion females are blonde to tan, while males are dark brown. Steller sea lions can have reddish shades.

Leopard Seal vs Sea Lion: Classification

sea lion vs walrus

Sea lions are a subfamily called


, consisting of six species classified into five genera.


One important distinction between leopard seals and sea lions is their classification. While they are both pinnipeds, leopard seals are a species (Hydrurga leptonyx) in the Hydrurga genus of the Phocidae family. By contrast, sea lions are a subfamily called Otariinae, consisting of six species classified into five genera: 

  • Eumetopias jubatus: Steller sea lion
  • Neophoca cinerea: Australian sea lion
  • Otaria flavescens: South American sea lion
  • Phocarctos hookeri: New Zealand sea lion
  • Zalophus californianus: California sea lion
  • Zalophus wollebaeki: Galapagos sea lion

Another species in the Zalophus genus called Zalophus japonicus (Japanese sea lion) went extinct in the 1950s.

Leopard Seal vs Sea Lion: Distribution and Habitat

While sea lions can be found worldwide (except for the northern Atlantic Ocean) in all kinds of habitats, ranging from subarctic to tropical waters, leopard seals prefer sticking to the Antarctic pack ice. A study shows that more seals live in areas of abundant cake ice and brash ice. Areas with larger floes aren’t so populated. Although leopard seals have been spotted in South America, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa, this happens rarely. 

Leopard Seal vs Sea Lion: Diet

Both leopard seals and sea lions are omnivorous animals. However, there’s a small difference. While sea lions’ prey includes meat and plants, leopard seals rarely feed on plant matter (probably because there isn’t much in their cold habitat). They prefer fish, penguins, squid, shellfish, and krill. During winter, their primary food source is krill

Sea lions’ diet is extremely varied. They can eat animals such as squid, octopus, penguins, fish, and crustaceans but also delight in plant life and seaweed.

Leopard Seal vs Sea Lion: Predators and Threats

Leopard Seal Teeth - Leopard Seal

Leopard seals are known to be preyed on by killer whales.


Since sea lions are more widely distributed, they obviously have more predators than leopard seals. These include great white sharks, killer whales, and even stray dog packs. However, their primary predators are humans, who hunt them for sustenance purposes. Sometimes sea lions can get trapped in fishing nets and drown. 

On the other hand, leopard seals are apex predators and don’t have too many predators. However, killer whales are known to have preyed on leopard seals. Sharks can also attack leopard seals, but this doesn’t happen often. Humans aren’t a direct threat to leopard seals. But climate change, on the other hand, can greatly impact their habitat. This, in turn, will affect their population.

Leopard Seal vs Sea Lion: Interaction with Humans

Leopard Seals

Although leopard seals are apex predators, they rarely attack humans, mostly because they rarely stumble upon humans or the other way around. Only a few leopard seal attacks were recorded, the last one occurring in 2021. 

There’s only been one fatal leopard seal attack in history. In 2003, a leopard seal killed Kirsty Brown while she was snorkeling in Antarctica.

Sea Lions

Compared to leopard seals, the sea lion-human interaction story is much longer. 

Besides hunting sea lions and posing a risk to their lives through fishing nets, humans are a great threat to sea lions’ habitats. Since these animals primarily feed on fish, humans’ efforts in catching fish and reducing their population affect the sea lion population, too. Besides this, sea lions are extremely affected by human recreational activities. They can become violent and aggressive and end up with psychological stress. Because of this, sea lions may even abandon their homes. 

New Zealand sea lions are a perfect example of how humans affect the sea lion population. This species was extirpated from New Zealand more than 150 years ago due to hunting and sealing. However, their population started to grow again when a baby sea lion was born in New Zealand. But it didn’t take too long for people to threaten them again. Since this species is the only one to go as far as 1.2 miles on land, they have been hit by cars, killed, or attacked by dogs. However, people are doing their best to establish a better “relationship” between humans and New Zealand sea lions. 

Sea lions do not deliberately attack people but can become quite aggressive and violent if people come near them. For example, in 2007, when a sea lion attacked a 13-year-old girl, a marine biologist stated that the aquatic animal might’ve just seen her as something to play with.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/Bkamprath

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About the Author

I hold seven years of professional experience in the content world, focusing on nature, and wildlife. Asides from writing, I enjoy surfing the internet and listening to music.

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