Antarctic visitor could force rethink of species' lifestyle

A regular visitor to New Zealand beaches has upended scientists' thinking on an Antarctic species.

Owha the leopard seal was an Auckland marina favourite last summer - but it was a five-year-old holiday snap of her that's causing surprise.

Usually these seals visit only in summer months, returning to Antarctica during the winter.

But Owha is a longstayer, and NIWA's Dr Krista Hupman recently found a photo of her off the Otago coast in 2012.

"It actually makes our world-first resident leopard seal that's stayed for this period of time a maximum of five years," she told Newshub.

Scientists are now questioning previously held beliefs about the seals.

"We've observed her feeding on a number of different species, she's of good body condition so... it's actually turning our ideas on our head, and we're actually thinking these species aren't as rare in NZ as we once thought ," Dr Hupman said.

Dr Hupman has set up a hotline 0800 LEOPARD to encourage people to report and document their sightings.

"From that we're able to collate all the research sightings into one area and that'll give us an idea over time of how many are using this region," she said.

And as for Owha, she's since moved up north and was last seen swimming happily near Whangarei.