Grey seals in the wild have been caught clapping underwater

Grey seals in the wild have been caught clapping underwater”

In the video, collected by naturalists, a wild grey seal is swimming underwater, clapping his flippers which made a sharp cracking sound. Like seal claps, those chest beats carry two messages: "I am strong, stay away; and I am strong, my genes are good".

Gray seals are gregarious and social creatures.

Seal diver Ben Burville with one of his dive buddies - a wild grey seal off the Farne Islands, UK.

But now a Monash University-led worldwide study has discovered that wild grey seals can also clap their flippers underwater during the breeding season, as a show of strength that warns off competitors and advertises to potential mates.

After 17 years of diving, Burville finally caught a male grey seal clapping its paw-like flippers to produce a gunshot-like "crack" sound. Documenting the clapping behaviour has been hard due to its "rapid nature and usually sudden onset", as the authors wrote in the paper. Harbor seals, for instance, slap their flippers to draw attention from females and warn males off their territory.

'It is nearly as if this seal is saying "I'm the boss here" while telling females "aren't I strong, aren't my genes good"'.

While most marine mammals use vocal calls of whistles to chat, Halichoerus grypus can also smack their arms together as a show of strength.

Similar displays have been observed in other marine mammals at a surface level.

Besides the freaky "rup" and "rupe" calls these seals normally make in the wild (see the video below), some captive animals have even been trained to perform the Star Wars theme tune! Their vocalization are wider-ranged than mere barks, however: a study in 2019 showed that seals can actually be trained to copy new sounds, including musical notes.

Of course, it is also possible that some other species also clap, but haven't done so in front of a camera.

Dr Hocking says clapping seals demonstrates just how much there still is to learn about the animals living around us. The action produces a "loud high-frequency noise", sending out "a clear signal" to other males in the area.

"If we don't know there is behavior, we can not simply act to protect it", said Hocking. Sadly, future work will also have to determine the extent to which noise pollution from ships and other human activities might be negatively impacting the grey seals and their ability to mate.

David Hocking is a postdoctoral fellow at Monash University; Ben Burville is a visiting researcher - marine biology at Newcastle University; and Felix Georg Marx is a curator vertebrates at Te Papa Tongarewa.This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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