While captive seals can be seen clapping in zoos and aquariums, scientists say this is the first time one of their wild counterparts has been caught on camera performing the action.
Humans clap to applaud or express approval, but 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.
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.”
Dr 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.
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.”