Clawed forelimbs allow northern seals to eat like their ancient ancestors

David P. Hocking*, Felix G. Marx, Renae Sattler, Robert N. Harris, Tahlia I. Pollock, Karina J. Sorrell, Erich M.G. Fitzgerald, Matthew R. McCurry, Alistair R. Evans

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


Streamlined flippers are often considered the defining feature of seals and sea lions, whose very name ‘pinniped’ comes from the Latin pinna and pedis, meaning ‘fin-footed’. Yet not all pinniped limbs are alike. Whereas otariids (fur seals and sea lions) possess stiff streamlined forelimb flippers, phocine seals (northern true seals) have retained a webbed yet mobile paw bearing sharp claws. Here, we show that captive and wild phocines routinely use these claws to secure prey during processing, enabling seals to tear large fish by stretching them between their teeth and forelimbs. ‘Hold and tear’ processing relies on the primitive forelimb anatomy displayed by phocines, which is also found in the early fossil pinniped Enaliarctos. Phocine forelimb anatomy and behaviour therefore provide a glimpse into how the earliest seals likely fed, and indicate what behaviours may have assisted pinnipeds along their journey from terrestrial to aquatic feeding.

Original languageEnglish
Article number172393
Number of pages11
JournalRoyal Society Open Science
Early online date18 Apr 2018
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 18 Apr 2018


  • Claws
  • Evolution
  • Feeding behaviour
  • Forelimb anatomy
  • Marine mammals
  • Pinnipeds


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