Female harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) behavioral response to playbacks of underwater male acoustic advertisement displays

Leanna P. Matthews, Brittany Blades, Susan E. Parks

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


During the breeding season, male harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) make underwater acoustic displays using vocalizations known as roars. These roars have been shown to function in territory establishment in some breeding areas and have been hypothesized to be important for female choice, but the function of these sounds remains unresolved. This study consisted of a series of playback experiments in which captive female harbor seals were exposed to recordings of male roars to determine if females respond to recordings of male vocalizations and whether or not they respond differently to roars from categories with different acoustic characteristics. The categories included roars with characteristics of dominant males (longest duration, lowest frequency), subordinate males (shortest duration, highest frequency), combinations of call param- eters from dominant and subordinate males (long duration, high frequency and short duration, low frequency), and control playbacks of water noise and water noise with tonal signals in the same frequency range as male signals. Results indicate that overall females have a significantly higher level of response to playbacks that imitate male vocalizations when compared to control playbacks of water noise. Specifically, there was a higher level of response to playbacks representing dominant male vocalization when compared to the control playbacks. For most individuals, there was a greater response to playbacks representing dominant male vocalizations compared to playbacks representing subordinate male vocalizations; however, there was no statistical difference between those two playback types. Additionally, there was no difference between the playbacks of call parameter combinations and the controls. Investigating female preference for male harbor seal vocalizations is a critical step in understanding the harbor seal mating system and further studies expanding on this captive study will help shed light on this important issue.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere4547
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2018


  • Acoustic behavior
  • Harbor seals
  • Phoca vitulina
  • Pinnipeds
  • Playback experiments

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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