MELBOURNE, Australia — Most whale or seal species typically communicate with each other via calls or whistles, but a new study conducted at Monash University finds that male gray seals actually do a great deal of their breeding season communications by clapping underwater. Researchers believe the claps serve as a warning or show of strength to other nearby male seals, and as a mating signal for females.
For the first time ever, footage was captured of a male wild gray seal clapping while completely underwater using his front flippers. His clap was so powerful, it produced a “cracking” sound comparable to a gunshot.
“The discovery of ‘clapping seals’ might not seem that surprising, after all, they’re famous for clapping in zoos and aquaria,” says lead study author Dr. David Hocking from Monash University’s School of Biological Sciences in a media release. “But where zoo animals are often trained to clap for our entertainment – these grey seals are doing it in the wild of their own accord.”
The footage itself was recorded by Dr. Ben Burville, a collaborating researcher from Newcastle University in the United Kingdom. Dr. Burville had been attempting to capture footage of gray seals communicating underwater for 17 years before successfully capturing a clap on camera.
“The clap was incredibly loud and at first I found it hard to believe what I had seen,” Dr. Burville explains. “How could a seal make such a loud clap underwater with no air to compress between its flippers?”
It certainly isn’t unheard of for a marine mammal to produce sounds underwater, but in all of those cases, the mammal slaps the water with their entire body or tail. This clapping technique is unique to gray seals, at least as far as researchers can tell at this time.
The flipper clapping produces a high-frequency noise that easily cuts through any other background noises that may be present. Suffice to say, it would be impossible for a nearby seal to not hear the claps.
“Depending on the context, the claps may help to ward off competitors and/or attract potential mates,” Dr. Hocking adds. “Think of a chest-beating male gorilla, for example. Like seal claps, those chest beats carry two messages: I am strong, stay away; and I am strong, my genes are good.”
All in all, these findings highlight the fact that there is still a wealth of information about our planet’s wildlife that is still a mystery to humans. Moreover, the study’s authors say it is quite possible that human noise pollution is interfering with the seals’ mating practices.
“Human noise pollution is known to interfere with other forms of marine mammal communication, including whale song,” Dr. Hocking concludes. “But if we do not know a behavior exists, we cannot easily act to protect it.”
The study is published in Marine Mammal Science.