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Grey seals discovered clapping underwater to communicate - Newcastle University

Seal diver Ben Burville with one of his dive buddies - a wild grey seal off the Farne Islands, UK. Photo by Ben Burville.
Seal diver Ben Burville with one of his dive buddies - a wild grey seal off the Farne Islands, UK. Photo by Ben Burville.

A grey seal has been captured on camera clapping its flippers underwater for the very first time.

Dr Ben Burville, a researcher at Newcastle University, UK, has been trying for 17 years to film a seal producing the gunshot-like ‘Crack!’ sound which they make underwater during the breeding season.

Used by bull seals as a sign of strength to ward off competitors and attract potential mates, the loud high-frequency noise cuts through background noise, sending out a clear signal to any other seals in the area. Previously believed to be a vocal sound – like the calls and whistles produced by many marine mammals – this new underwater footage clearly shows a male grey seal repeatedly clapping its flippers to produce the loud noise.

Newcastle University’s Dr Burville – explains: “I was diving off the Farne Islands when I first saw a large male clap underwater. 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. How could a seal make such a loud clap underwater with no air to compress between its flippers? 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."

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