Wild grey seals clap underwater to communicate

As a show of strength that warns off competitors and advertises to potential mates.


In a new study by the Monash University, scientists discovered wild grey seals clapping their flippers entirely underwater during the breeding season. The study demonstrates that nonvocal auditory behaviors may also be produced entirely underwater.

The observations were based on video footage of a male gray seal repeatedly clapping together its paw-like forelimbs to produce a sharp, snap-like sound.

Lead study author Dr. David Hocking from Monash University’s School of Biological Sciences said, “The discovery of ‘clapping seals’ might not seem that surprising, after all, they’re famous for clapping in zoos and aquaria. 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 video footage was captured by naturalist Dr. Ben Burville, a Visiting Researcher with Newcastle University, UK.

Dr. Burville said, “The clap was incredibly loud, and at first I found it hard to believe what I had seen. How could a seal make such a loud clap underwater with no air to compress between its flippers?”

Associate Professor Alistair Evans from Monash University said, “Other marine mammal species can produce similar types of percussive sound by slapping the water with their body or tail.”

“The loud high-frequency noise produced by clapping cuts through background noise, sending out a clear signal to any other seals in the area.”

Dr. Hocking said, “Depending on the context, the claps may help to ward off competitors and/or attract potential mates.”

“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.”

“Clapping seals demonstrates just how much there still is to learn about the animals living around us. Clapping appears to be an important social behavior for grey seals, so anything that disturbed it could impact breeding success and survival for this species.”

“Human noise pollution is known to interfere with other forms of marine mammal communication, including whale song. But if we do not know a behavior exists, we cannot easily act to protect it. Understanding the animals around us better may help us to protect them, and their way of life.”

The research, published today in the journal Marine Mammal Science.


See stories of the future in your inbox each morning.