Elephant Seals Know When Their Opponents Are Talking Crap

Yelling at each other online is a beloved human tradition. Other animals like to shout at each other too, they just don't have the luxury of a screen separating them. But of all the petty creatures in the animal kingdom, it turns out elephant seals might be most like humans when it comes to talking crap.

Image: Nicolas Mathevon

A new study published on July 20 in Current Biology suggests that elephant seals are able to recognise the tone and rhythmic patterns of their rivals' calls. Just as it is with people who squabble online, maintaining dominance is very important to elephant seals' social order. A team of researchers spent weeks studying an elephant seal colony in Año Nuevo State Park, California, where they were able to identify the alpha male and record his call. The team changed the rhythm and timbre of the call, and presented two modified versions back to the seal colony, in addition to the original.

When the researchers played the original alpha male call to 10 "beta" males, the non-dominant seals scrambled away in fear. When they played their edited versions, however, the beta males were unafraid when the changes in the beat were more extreme. Therefore, the researchers concluded that the beta seals understood that they were not hearing the alpha male's call.

"This is the first natural example where on a daily basis, an animal uses the memory and the perception of rhythm to recognise other members of the population," co-author Nicolas Mathevon of the Université de Lyon/Saint-Etienne in France said in a statement. Humans can do this too, of course.

"There have been experiments with other mammals showing that they can detect rhythm, but only with conditioning," Mathevon added.

Image: Nicolas Mathevon

In general, elephant seal calls sound like a broken car. But while they might not be the most elegant musicians, elephant seals need to understand each others' calls so that they don't die.

"It is possible that maybe the ability to perceive rhythm is actually very general in animals," Mathevon said. "But it's extremely important for elephant seals, to the point of survival. Competing for females, the males fight very violently, even to the point of killing one another. So it's very important for them to accurately recognise the voices, to be able to choose the right strategy, to know to avoid a fight with a dominant male, or even to start a fight with an inferior one."

Of course, there are some limitations here. This study only analysed one colony — maybe they were just some really socially-conscious elephant seals. More research is needed to determine weather or not all elephant seals can understand pitch and the "beat" of other elephant seal "speech".

Anyway, while elephant seals aren't the most eloquent species, I'd still rather listen to their caterwauling over any Chainsmokers song.

[Current Biology]

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