Seal filmed ‘clapping’ its flippers in the wild for the first time

Cheryl Sanders
February 5, 2020

"I've heard the distinctive shotgun-like cracks many times over the years and I felt sure this clapping behaviour was the source, but filming the seals in action has eluded me for 17 years". Footage captured by the naturalist shows a male grey seal clapping its front flippers together underwater to create a "gunshot-like" sound, the first time a seal has been seen doing so beneath the ocean surface.

Researchers have filmed the first wild seal clap, showing that it's main objective is not to be playful, but show themselves as a threat.

The loud, high-frequency sound cuts through background noise, sending a clear signal to other seals in the area.

A Gray Seal comes for a closer look at a group of divers on June 25, 2011 at the Farne Islands, England.

"Then one day I had heard a couple of claps in the distance, I just hit the record button and eureka!"

"The discovery of "clapping seals" might not seem that surprising, after all, they're famous for clapping in zoos and aquaria", lead study author Dr. David Hocking from the School of Biological Sciences said in a media statement.

The male was seen swimming in the vicinity of a female prior to him making the clapping noise. Being used to attract mates and scare off rivals, the claps are similar to the chest-beating of a gorilla. Like seal claps, those chest beats carry two messages: "I am strong, stay away; and I am strong, my genes are good".

Clapping seals are obviously nothing new, as captive individuals can be taught to clap their flippers on command, as is often the case at aquatic theme parks. While, humpbacks have been known to use flipper slaps as a sign of aggression or competition.

The sound was previously thought to be vocal, but the new video materialshows a gray seal clapping its fins to make the sound. Documenting the clapping behaviour has been hard due to its "rapid nature and usually sudden onset", as the authors wrote in the paper.

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.

"If we do not know a behavior exists, we can not easily act to protect it", Hocking said.

In previous research, scientists discovered gray seals are capable of mimicking human speech and song.

"Copies were not flawless but given that these are not typical seal sounds it is pretty impressive", lead researcher Dr Amanda Stansbury told the BBC at the time.

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