If you’re happy and you know it clap your flippers

A new video from a researcher from Newcastle University has, for the first time, captured a grey seal clapping its flippers together underwater, creating a loud gunshot-like noise.

baby claps
A juvenile grey seal puts its flippers together (not actually clapping in this photo)

Ladies and Gentlemen put your hands together for a special moment in marine mammal research. After 17 years of trying marine biologist Ben Burville, a researcher at Newcastle University, finally caught a grey seal clapping underwater. Although the behaviour has been described before and filmed in zoos and aquariums, it is the first time footage of it in the wild without any training or other human interference has been captured. The video of the bull clapping multiple times in short succession was submitted as part of a new paper exploring this newly confirmed behaviour and the reasons behind it. So why do seals make these loud ‘gunshot’ sounds and why is it important that they do?

Capturing the moment

The video in question was filmed in October 2017 in the waters surrounding the coast of England’s Farne Islands, home to thousands of grey seals, by Newcastle University researcher Dr Ben Burville. He had spent over 17 years trying to be the first to capture a grey seal clapping underwater after witnessing it first hand and hearing the sounds it creates on multiple occasions. In a press release he explains that “the clap was incredibly loud” and that “at first I found it hard to believe what I had seen”.

Dr Ben Burville diving alongside the grey seals he is trying to film

The video Ben captured has only recently been released in a new paper by him and others in marine mammal biology. Lead author Dr David Hocking, from Monash University in Australia, says “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”.

How do they do it?

The noise created by the grey seals clapping together their flippers is incredibly loud and sharply cuts through the background noise of the underwater world. In the press release Dr Burville asks “how could a seal make such a loud clap underwater with no air to compress between its flippers?” It is an interesting question. Marine mammals create a large number of sounds for communication and navigation, but most of these like the seals own ‘rup’ and ‘rupe’ calls are made vocally. Clapping is a very different way of producing a sound and if you’ve ever tried to clap underwater you’ll know it’s not easy. The researchers suggest that their shorter, paw-like flippers are crucial to making the sounds, but that it also likely requires a high level of co-ordination not normally associated with seals.

Researchers believe the shorter paw-like flippers of the grey seals are what allows them to create such a powerful clap

Communication via clapping

Like most marine mammal sounds, the researchers behind the new paper suggest that the primary reason behind the clapping is likely to be communication. In the video you can see that as soon as the bull grey seal in question starts to clap, the other males in the area quickly disperse. The team equate it to a gorilla slapping it’s chest as a sign of dominance and suggest it helps to ward off rival males and find females to mate with.

This would make sense as the video was captured during the breeding season and its wide range and high volume makes a strong statement to those around them. It is also exclusively the males who clap as far as we know. However the researchers are also quick to point out that this is just a one off encounter and more data is needed to confirm their suspicions.

What’s next?

Like all forms of sound produced by my marine life one of the big issues that can effect these sounds and how they move through the water is human activity. We create a large amount of marine noise pollution through boating, coastal development, renewable energy and deep sea mining. It can interfere with natural sounds and disrupt vital behaviours such as communication and navigation.

baby elephant seal clapping
A juvenile elephant seal looks like it might be clapping, but is this species also capable of the behaviour?

Now that we know grey seals use clapping as a form of communication related to reproduction, it is important to next find out if marine noise pollution can disrupt these behaviours in any way. Although grey seals are the only pinniped species know to clap in the wild the race is also on to see if it actually happens in other species as well. Luckily study into marine noise pollution is currently very popular in marine biology and conservation so it shouldn’t take too long to answer these important questions.

You can check out this awesome behaviour for yourself in this video released by Newcastle University.

I think that deserves a round of applause!

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