Elephant seals are more social than we thought…

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For male elephant seals, the fight to secure a mate can be vicious, even deadly. So they try everything they can to avoid it. This is a pattern biologists see again and again – across the animal kingdom, males have evolved to use signals to assess each other’s prowess and avert costly physical confrontations. In most cases, these signals are honest – they accurately convey an individual’s size, strength or dominance. But new research shows this is not the case for Elephant seals, which have evolved a more sophisticated system.

Male Northern elephant seals use social information to escape a fight

Studying wild Northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) in California, the researchers found that although several acoustic features of the seals’ vocalisations correlated with body size, in playback experiments males did not use this information to decide whether to attack or retreat. Instead, they found the seals were using information about individual identity, combined with their knowledge of that individual, to make this crucial decision. Under natural conditions, fights most commonly occurred between strangers, who lacked the experience to make an informed decision.

Using social information is an effective strategy to avoid fights for Northern elephant seals because they live in relatively consistent social groups and return to the same breeding sites year after year. The study reveals new levels of social and cognitive complexity in Northern elephant seals, and demonstrates the capacity for individual recognition in pinnipeds.

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