The interaction sheds new light on the dynamics between gray seals (Halichoerus grypus) and white-tailed eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla), according to Clare Jacobs, a birdwatcher from the United Kingdom.

Clare Jacobs captured the rare moment a gray seal (Halichoerus grypus) spits a jet of water at a swooping white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) on the Isle of Wight. Image credit: Clare Jacobs.

Clare Jacobs witnessed a white-tailed eagle swooping towards the water’s surface during a high tide.

As the eagle made its approach, an adult gray seal emerged from the water directly beneath the predator.

The extraordinary event happened on the waters of the Newtown tidal estuary of the Newtown River on a stretch of water called Clamerkin Brook or Clamerkin Lake.

Captured on camera, the encounter showed the gray seal initially emitting barks of warning, but then resorting to the unprecedented defensive tactic spitting a stream of water directly at the eagle.

“I’m always thrilled to catch photos of the eagles,” Clare Jacobs said.

“But catching such a rare and never before seen interaction made my year.”

“Sightings of gray seals and white-tailed eagles are frequent events now on the Isle of Wight, but interactions between these two species have so far not been reported,” said Megan Jacobs, Clare Jacobs’ daughter and a paleontologist at the University of Portsmouth.

“This is the first record of an interaction between these two top predators and the first report of gray seals using spitting as a means of defense or deterrence against an aerial foe.”

“The spitting may be a strategy to exclude white-tailed eagles from competing for prey as they’re in direct competition for fish resources.”

White-tailed eagles, also known as sea eagles, are the largest of all European eagle species.

They can achieve a maximum wingspan reaching 2.6 m, although it is usually smaller at around 2.26 m for males and 2.37 m for females.

Although they became extinct on the Isle of Wight in 1780, a bold reintroduction program began introducing young white-tailed eagles taken from Scottish breeding pairs to the Isle of Wight in the summer of 2019.

“Spitting is an unusual behavioral activity among vertebrates, which is why this event is so fascinating,” Megan Jacobs said.

“It challenges our existing perceptions of animal defense mechanisms.”

“I’m thrilled we’ve got photographic evidence as spitting is usually just seen in humans, camels, llamas and alpacas, as well as some snakes where it’s used for venom delivery, and it can also be used for prey capture by the Archer fish.”

The extraordinary event is described in a paper in the Isle of Wight Natural History and Archaeological Society journal.

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