Elephant Seal Calls Tell Rivals Who's Boss
Male elephant seals recognize the unique calls of their rivals, helping them know when to fight or flee, new research suggests.
SAN FRANCISCO - Male elephant seals recognize the unique calls of their rivals, helping them know when to fight or flee, new research suggests.
The findings, presented here at the 166th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, suggest that in the seals' hypercompetitive mating market, recognizing their rivals' calls to avoid senseless fights can be a good strategy.
"If you can call at your rival and save yourself from having to fight again, that's really good," said study co-author Caroline Casey, a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. That's smarter than "peaking early, wasting all your energy and being unable to carry on and having to sit on the sidelines for the remainder of the seasons."
For northern elephant seals, mating is risky business. The blubbery mammals come to Año Nuevo State Park in Northern California every winter, and the males battle violently over mates. The winners mate with several females, with the biggest, fiercest seals impregnating up to 50 females.
Meanwhile, the losers lurk around the fringes of the winning males' harems, hoping for a chance to impregnate an unguarded female. (Image Gallery: Elephant Seals of the Antarctic)
The fights - full of body slamming and slashing teeth - are dangerous and high stakes, because males must stay on the beach without eating or drinking for about 100 days during mating season. A loss can sideline them for the season due to malnutrition and energy depletion and can lead to permanent disfigurement, Casey told LiveScience.
Knowing when to fight or flee could help male elephant seals stay in the mating game. To see how they chose fights, Casey and her colleagues recorded the unique roars of elephant seals whose rank in the male pecking order was well known based on past interactions.
"The same male will emit the same call from year to year," she said, which even to the untrained ear sounds very different from another seal's call.
The researchers then played high- and low-status males' calls to a group of mid-ranking males.
When the seals heard the roar of a beta male, they approached aggressively. But when the male heard the call of a male higher in the dominance hierarchy, he turned tail and fled.
That suggested the seal knew the male's identity and that recognizing the call enabled him to decide how to respond.
In a follow-up experiment, the researchers went to a beach about 150 miles (240 kilometers) south and played the same calls to a group of elephant seals that weren't familiar with them.
The males didn't respond at all to the unknown calls. "This was a very anti-climactic field trip for us," Casey said.
That nonresponse suggests the elephant seals use prior knowledge of the pecking order to decide when to pursue or retreat from a fight. The scientists aren't sure whether the seals have to learn through painful personal experience which male is the alpha, or whether they can observe other fights to know when to steer clear, Casey said.
More from LiveScience:
Top 10 Swingers of the Animal Kingdom Marine Marvels: Spectacular Photos of Sea Creatures Album: The World's Biggest Beasts Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
This story originally appeared on LiveScience.com.
Two male southern elephant seals clash over a harem. This photograph won the behavioral and physiological ecology category in the BMC Ecology photography contest of 2013.
The abdominal flaps of the male Australian peacock spider have been described as looking like an Indian blanket or a priceless jewel. Males lift them up when trying -- and often succeeding -- in impressing females.
Portions of the chests of both male and female gelada baboons are colored bright pink. Males, in particular, scan over a female's chest and genital areas before making their moves.
A male peacock spends much of his time and energy primping and maintaining his ornate fanned tail. The effort pays off, however, when he flashes his handiwork in front of admiring females.
Males of the pterosaur Darwinopterus showed off their large head crests that likely resembled the fanned tails of today's male peacocks.
Women worry about having large derrieres, but that is hardly a concern for female baboons. According to a Science study authored by Laurence Gesquiere of Princeton University and colleagues, the genitals of a female baboon swell when she is ready to mate. The male courting her keeps his eyes on the prize, and fights off any intruders that might try to "butt" in.
The bright purple "crewcut"-topped head of the male bowerbird would appear to be enough to attract females. But these dramatic birds put even more flash into their mating displays with elaborate bower displays and eye-catching gifts.
The large elephant trunk-like proboscis -- basically a big nose -- is the male elephant seal's secret to sexual success. He uses it to produce exceedingly loud roars during the mating season while fighting for his favorite gal and getting her attention.
Naturally dressed as though prepared for a Las Vegas floor show, male birds-of-paradise still must perform for their intendeds. Courting males generally engage in dance-like performances on perches or forest floor clearings, hoping an audience of one adoring female.
Comb jellies are translucent and give off a bioluminescent (meaning chemical reaction-caused) glow in the deep sea. Almost all species are hermaphrodites, functioning as both male and female at the same time. Self-fertilization has been documented, so this literal flasher doesn't have to spend much time impressing others.
Lacking elaborate natural adornments, such as colorful feathers, humans often enhance their sex appeal with sexy clothing, jewelry, scents, flashy cars and more. Here, Justin Timberlake and dancers proudly show off their grooves and haberdashery.