After 17 years, researchers have finally captured a wild grey seal "clapping" on camera for the first time.
Dr. Ben Burville from Newcastle University spent countless hours underwater in hopes of recording the motion, which creates a loud "gunshot-like crack" to ward off competing seals during mating season.
The video and new findings were recently published in the journal Marine Mammal Science. The research is part of an international study led by Monash University in Australia.
"I've heard the distinctive shotgun-like cracks many times over the years and I felt sure this clapping behavior was the source, but filming the seals in action has eluded me for 17 years," Burville said in a news release. "Then one day I had heard a couple of claps in the distance, I just hit the record button and eureka! I got it!"
Bull grey seals not only "clap" to scare off other males; they also use the maneuver to attract potential mates as a sign of strength.
The clap of the flippers creates a high-frequency noise that cuts through background sounds. This allows each slam to send clear signals to other seals.
Previously, researchers believed the noise to be a vocal sound, similar to the calls and whistles that other marine mammals produce.
"The discovery of 'clapping seals' might not seem that surprising, after all, they're famous for clapping in zoos and aquaria," said the study's lead author, Dr. David Hocking. "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. Clapping appears to be an important social behavior for grey seals, so anything that disturbed it could impact breeding success and survival for this species."
That's all the more reason to understand more about how human noise in the oceans might affect this and other behavior, and the research team hopes the discovery will prompt more research into that area.