‘Shotgun-like’ wild seal clap caught on tape for the first time

3 Feb 2020

Image: Ben Burville/Newcastle University

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

A wild grey seal has been caught ‘clapping’ on camera for the first time, making sounds that resemble “shotgun-like cracks”. The large male was filmed striking its flippers together off the coast of the Farne Islands during the breeding season in 2017.

While captive seals can be seen clapping in zoos and aquariums, scientists said this is the first time one of their wild counterparts has been caught on camera performing the action. While humans clap to applaud or express approval, in the case of wild grey seals (Halichoerus grypus), this gesture signifies quite the opposite.

Scientists believe male seals clap to demonstrate their strength, as part of an attempt to ward off competitors and attract potential mates. The action produces a “loud high-frequency noise”, sending out “a clear signal” to other males in the area.

‘I found it hard to believe what I had seen’

In the video, the male seal can be seen swimming close to a female, with other males lurking nearby, before it starts clapping. Dr Ben Burville, a researcher at the University of Newcastle who took the footage, said: “The effect of the clap was instant and the rival males rapidly dispersed.

“The clap was incredibly loud and at first I found it hard to believe what I had seen.”

Burville, who had been trying for many years to capture clapping seals on camera, added: “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.

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

The video is part of an international study published in the journal Marine Mammal Science.

Ben Burville with his head above the water in scuba gear with a grey seal head touching him.

Researcher Dr Ben Burville with a wild grey seal. Image: Ben Burville/Newcastle University

A need to clap back

Dr David Hocking from Monash University in Australia, who led the study, 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 researchers said understanding more about grey seals and other marine life could help protect the species against the harmful effects of pollution.

Hocking added: “Clapping appears to be an important social behaviour 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 behaviour exists, we cannot easily act to protect it.”

– PA Media