A study published in the journal Current Biology reveals that elephant seals can recognize each other's "voices" and react accordingly to them.
Less aggressive members of the colony are able to remember and identify alpha males using their voices because elephant seals have a unique rhythm and tone that do not change once they mature.
"They communicate their individual identity. Their calls are like fingerprints," lead author Professor Nicolas Mathevon explains.
The team of researchers who observed an elephant seal colony for over five years in Año Nuevo National Park, California hypothesized that male elephant seal calls had something to do with communicating their status and ability to establish dominance.
In order to determine whether the hypothesis was correct, the team recorded the call of a dominant male and produced two variations of the unique call: one with slightly raised tempo, and another with more recognizable changes in tempo. The team then played both recordings to betas to see how they would react.
Elephant Seal Voice Recognition
According to the researchers, male betas would flop away in fear when the call of an alpha or stronger beta male is played without any modifications to the timbre and tempo.
When the modified recording is played, however, the betas would take their chance and stand their ground against the unidentified newcomer.
Those who have not heard elephant seal calls before can listen to the recording below.
The experiment led the team to conclude two things: the first is that elephant seals have unique "voices" that allow them to be recognizable and, second, their initial hypothesis about the "message" being communicated is most likely correct.
The team also provided the first example of a non-primate mammal that has the ability to identify individuals using sound.
Voice Recognition Is Key To Survival
Researchers believe that identifying alpha male call is an effective strategy for betas to avoid potentially lethal conflicts, especially since a full-sized elephant seal can weigh at least 4,000 pounds and are prepared to fight to death to maintain dominance over the colony — and, of course, access to the females.
"If he gets it wrong, the costs of that mistake are pretty high. We saw a male die last year from a canine through the skull," study co-author Professor Caroline Casey recalled.
Next Steps In The Research
Now that male-to-male communication and identification have been established, the team plans on going further by modifying the finer details of the seal calls. They also plan to study female-to-female and adult-to-young communications to further understand the species.