Deep impact: grey seals clap underwater to communicate

Ben Burville, Author provided

David Hocking, Monash University; Ben Burville, Newcastle University, and Felix Georg Marx, Te Papa Tongarewa

Have you ever clapped your hands to get someone’s attention? The resulting “crack!” sound is hard to ignore, rising above and penetrating through any background noise.

Now imagine trying to do it underwater – you would be unlikely to achieve quite the same impact.

Amazingly, new footage released this week in the journal Marine Mammal Science shows breeding grey seals doing just that: they clap at each other to warn off competitors and attract potential mates.

Grey seal clapping underwater. Filmed by Ben Burville as part of Project Grypus.

Why is this unusual?

Like their land-living relatives, marine mammals primarily communicate vocally – think of dolphin whistles or the famous song of humpback whales. Grey seals are no exception, and in fact can be surprisingly versatile.

Besides the bizarre “rup” and “rupe” calls these seals normally make in the wild (see the video below), some captive animals have even been trained to perform the Star Wars theme tune!

But vocals are only half the story. Many marine mammals also produce percussive sounds, such as by slapping the water with their flippers or tails. Normally this happens at the surface, and only involves one flipper at a time.

What makes grey seals different is that – like humans – they literally clap their forelimbs together, and they do it entirely underwater.

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The behaviour that took 17 years to film

Recording the claps was far from easy, and took no less than 17 years of scuba diving by “seal diver” and marine biologist Ben Burville.

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

Ben was no stranger to the clapping sound itself. For years, he had heard it when diving with grey seals during their breeding season. Similar noises had also been detected by researchers using underwater microphones, but had been mistaken for a vocal signal.

It wasn’t until he actually saw a big male clapping together its paw-like flippers that Ben finally identified the true source of the sound. Yet the claps were quick and difficult to film; by the time he pointed his camera, things had usually moved on.

Years passed until finally, in October 2017, Ben caught the behaviour on film while diving near the Farne Islands, UK. A male grey seal performed seven claps right in front of him while his camera was rolling.

Grey seals use their short paw-like forelimbs to make loud clapping sounds underwater.
Filmed by Ben Burville. Illustrations by David Hocking.

Why do grey seals clap?

At first, the discovery might not seem that surprising. After all, seals are famous for performing this behaviour in zoos and aquaria. However, there is a crucial difference: whereas captive animals (usually fur seals or sea lions) have been trained to clap for our entertainment, grey seals do so in the wild and of their own accord.

So why do they do it?

Imagine being in a noisy room, with everyone around you chatting away. Getting attention can be difficult, unless you make a statement. That’s exactly what a clap is: a sharp, loud noise that rises above the background chatter.

Usually it’s males that do the clapping – sometimes by themselves, and sometimes at each other. Depending on the context, the claps may help ward off competitors and/or attract potential mates.

Similar functions underlie display behaviour in many other species. Think of a chest-beating male gorilla, for example. Like seal claps, those chest beats carry two messages: “I am strong, stay away”, and “I am strong, my genes are good.”

Male gorillas beat their chest as a show of strength to competitors and potential mates.

Do other marine mammals clap?

The short answer seems to be no, or at least not as far as we know. Clapping seems to be a genuinely novel behaviour that evolved in seals only once. Perhaps larger species such as sea lions are prevented from doing it by increased water resistance.

Australian sea lions have long flipper-like forelimbs that may create too much drag to clap effectively underwater.
Photo by David Hocking

Of course, it is also possible that some other species also clap, but haven’t done so in front of a camera.

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Even if clapping were unique to grey seals, it seems the sharp signal it generates is important for many marine mammals. Several dolphins, whales and seals produce similar sounds via tail or flipper slaps, or even gunshot-like vocalisations. The oceans are a noisy place, after all, and it can be important to stand out in a crowd.

Wild harbour seal slapping the water to create a loud noise – possibly to scare fish out of hiding so that they can be caught.

What should we learn from this?

Clapping seals show us just how much we still don’t know about the remarkable mammals in our oceans. Clapping seems to be an important social behaviour, hence anything that disturbs it may impact breeding success and survival.

Human noise pollution is known to interfere with other forms of marine mammal communication, including whale song. Loud industrial noises could conceivably disturb grey seals (and other species that rely on acoustic signals) in similar ways.

But if we do not know a behaviour exists, we cannot easily act to protect it.

Understanding the animals around us better can therefore help us to protect them and their way of life.The Conversation

Photo by Ben Burville

David Hocking, Postdoctoral fellow, Monash University; Ben Burville, Visiting Researcher – Marine Biology, Newcastle University, and Felix Georg Marx, Curator Vertebrates, Te Papa Tongarewa

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Lots of people want to help nature after the bushfires – we must seize the moment

Dan Mariuz/AAP

Denise Goodwin, Monash University; Abby Wild, Monash University, and Melissa Hatty, Monash University

As the devastation of this season of bushfires unfolds, many people have asked themselves: what can I do to help? Perhaps they donated money, left food out for wildlife or thought about joining a bush regeneration group.

Big, life-changing moments – whether society-wide or personal – provide unique opportunities to disrupt habits and foster new behaviours. Think of how a heart attack can prompt some people to adopt a healthier lifestyle.

For many Australians, the bushfire disaster could represent such a turning point, marking the moment they adopt new, long-term actions to help nature. But governments and environmental organisations must quickly engage people before the moment is lost.

Creatures of habit

Human behaviour is generally habitual, resistant to change, and shaped by context such as time of day, location or social group. But when this context is disrupted, opportunities emerge to foster change.

Take the case of taking action on climate change. Research into public perceptions, including in Australia, suggests most people see climate change as not personally relevant. In other words, they are “psychologically distant” from the problem. This means they are less likely to adopt pro-environmental behaviors.

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But the bushfire crisis was personally relevant to millions of Australians. Some tragically lost loved ones or homes. Thousands were forced to evacuate or had holidays cut short. And the smoke haze which engulfed our cities badly interfered with daily life.

Such ruptures are described in psychology and behavioural science as a moment of change, which means the time is ripe to encourage new behaviours.

Where there’s a will

Even before the fire crisis, many Australians were primed to act for nature.

In 2018 we conducted a survey which found 86% of Victorians support pro-environmental and pro-social values, 95% are aware of the condition of Victoria’s environment and the importance of biodiversity, and more than 64% feel connected to nature.

Experience of previous natural disasters provides further insights into why people might volunteer.

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After the 2011 Rena oil spill in New Zealand, communities came together to quickly remove oil from the coastline. Subsequent research found people volunteered for a range of reasons. This included a sense of collective responsibility for the environment for both current and future generations, and to connect with others and cope with their negative response to the spill.

One model of behaviour change theory suggests if people have the motivation, capability and opportunity, they are more likely to act.

Australians have shown motivation and capability to act in this bushfire crisis – now they need opportunities. Governments and environmental organisations should encourage easy behaviours people can perform now.

Bush regeneration groups are keenly awaiting new volunteers to help with bushfire recovery.

Putting it into practice

Timeliness is essential in promoting new behaviours. Organisations should limit the time that passes between a person’s first impulse to help – such as signing up to a volunteer organisation – and concrete opportunities to act.

Volunteering groups should communicate early with volunteers, find out what skills and resources they can offer then provide easy, practical suggestions for acting quickly.

In the short term, this might mean suggesting that concerned citizens keep their cats indoors and dogs under control, particularly near areas affected by the fires; take a bag on their beach walk to pick up litter and debris; or advocate for the environment by talking with family and friends about why nature needs protecting.

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In the longer term, these behaviours could be scaled up to activities such as encouraging people to fill their garden with native plants to provide new habitat for wildlife; regularly volunteering for nature, and participating in citizen science projects.

Governments, councils and other organisations should provide information that guides the activities of volunteers, but still gives them control over how they act. This can lead to positive initiatives such as Landcare, which allows local people to design solutions to environmental problems.

Analysis of natural disaster response overseas has shown that decentralised approaches which incorporate local communities work well.

The long-term picture

There is a danger that once the immediate shock of the bushfire crisis passes, some people will return to their old behaviours. However research has shown when people undertake one pro-environmental behaviour, they are more likely to repeat it in future.

Encouraging people to help nature, and spend time in it, can also improve a person’s physical and mental well-being.

After the New Zealand oil spill cleanup, for example, most volunteers reported a sense of satisfaction, better social ties and renewed optimism.

This summer’s east coast bushfires are a tragedy. But if the moment is harnessed, Australians can create new habits that help the environment in its long process of recovery. And perhaps one day, acting for nature will become the new social norm.The Conversation

Denise Goodwin, Research Fellow, BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University; Abby Wild, Research fellow, BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University, and Melissa Hatty, PhD candidate, BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Media ‘impartiality’ on climate change is ethically misguided and downright dangerous

Denis Muller, University of Melbourne

In September 2019, the editor of The Conversation, Misha Ketchell, declared The Conversation’s editorial team in Australia was henceforth taking what he called a “zero-tolerance” approach to climate change deniers and sceptics. Their comments would be blocked and their accounts locked.

His reasons were succinct:

Climate change deniers and those shamelessly peddling pseudoscience and misinformation are perpetuating ideas that will ultimately destroy the planet.

From the standpoint of conventional media ethics, it was a dramatic, even shocking, decision. It seemed to violate journalism’s principle of impartiality – that all sides of a story should be told so audiences could make up their own minds.

But in the era of climate change, this conventional approach is out of date. A more analytical approach is called for.

The ABC’s editorial policy on impartiality offers the best analytical approach so far developed in Australia. It states that impartiality requires:

  • a balance that follows the weight of evidence

  • fair treatment

  • open-mindedness

  • opportunities over time for principal relevant perspectives on matters of contention to be expressed.

It stops short of saying material contradicting the weight of evidence should not be published, which is the position adopted explicitly by The Conversation and implicitly by Guardian Australia.

Guardian Australia’s position is to concentrate on presenting the evidence that human-induced climate change is real and is having a detrimental effect on global heating, wildlife extinction and pollution. It states that this is the defining issue of our times and fundamental societal change is needed in response.

The position of Australia’s other big media organisations is far less clear and rests on generalities applicable to all issues.

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The former Fairfax (now Nine) newspapers, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, have separate codes. The Age code does not mention impartiality but requires its journalists to report in a way that is fair, accurate and balanced. The Herald’s does mention impartiality but confines it to an instruction to avoid promoting an individual staff member’s personal interests or preferences.

Both say, however, that comment should be kept separate from news.

News Corp Australia’s editorial professional conduct policy is quite different from all these. It states that comment, conjecture and opinion are acceptable in [news] reports to provide perspective on an issue, or explain the significance of an issue, or to allow readers to recognise what the publication’s standpoint is on the matter being reported.

Its journalists are told to try always to tell all sides of the story when reporting on disputes.

However, the policy also states that none of this allows the publication of information known to be inaccurate or misleading.

Markedly different as these positions are, they have one element in common: freedom of the press does not mean freedom to publish false or misleading material.

From an ethical perspective, this is a bare minimum. The ABC requires that its journalists follow the weight of evidence, which is a substantially more exacting standard of truthfulness than anything required by the Fairfax or News Corp newspapers. The Guardian Australia and The Conversation have imposed what it is in effect a ban on climate-change denialism, on the ground that it is harmful.

Harm is a long-established criterion for abridging free speech. John Stuart Mill, in his seminal work, On Liberty, published in 1859, was a robust advocate for free speech but he drew the line at harm:

[…] the only purpose for which power can be exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

It follows that editors may exercise the power of refusing to publish climate-denialist material if doing so prevents harm to others, without violating fundamental free-speech principles.

Other harms too provide established grounds for limiting free speech. Some of these are enforceable at law – defamation, contempt of court, national security – but speech about climate change falls outside the law and so becomes a question of ethics.

The harms done by climate change, both at a planetary level and at the level of human health, are well-documented and supported by overwhelming scientific evidence.

At a planetary level, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report last year on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.

It stated that human activities are estimated to have already caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels, and that 1.5°C was likely to be reached between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate.

At the level of human health, in June 2019 the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners published its Position Statement on Climate Change and Human Health.

It stated that climate change resulting from human activity “presents an urgent, significant and growing threat to health worldwide”.

Projected changes in Australia’s climate would result in more frequent and widespread heatwaves and extreme heat. This would increase the risks of heat stress, heat stroke, dehydration and mortality, contribute to acute cerebrovascular accidents, and aggravate chronic respiratory, cardiac and kidney conditions and psychiatric illness.

At both the planetary and human-health levels, then, the harms are serious and grounded in credible scientific evidence. It follows that they provide a strong ethical justification for the stands taken by The Conversation and Guardian Australia in prioritising Mill’s harm principle over free speech.

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Aside from these two platforms and the ABC, journalists are offered very limited internal guidance about how to approach the balancing of free-speech interests with the harm principle in the context of climate change.

External guidance is nonexistent. The ethical codes promulgated by the media accountability bodies – the Australian Press Council and the Australian Communications and Media Authority – make no mention of how impartiality should be achieved in the context of climate change. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s code of ethics is similarly silent.

These bodies would serve the profession and the public interest by developing specific standards to deal with the issue of climate change, and guidance about how to meet them. It is not an issue like any other. It is existential on a scale surpassing even nuclear war.

As I write in my study at Central Tilba on the far south coast of New South Wales, the entire landscape of farmland, bush and coastline is shrouded in smoke. It has been like that since before Christmas.

Twice we have been evacuated from our home. Twice we have been among the lucky ones to return unhurt and find our home intact.

The front of the Badja Forest Road fire (292,630 hectares) is 3.6 kilometres to the north, creeping towards us in the leaf litter. A northerly wind would turn it into an immediate threat.

From this perspective, media acquiescence in climate change denial, failure to follow the weight of evidence, or continued adherence to an out-of-date standard of impartiality looks like culpable irresponsibility.The Conversation

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.