Researchers, led by a supervisor at the El Paso Zoo, have found that gray seals are able to mimic human speech and songs, including the theme tune from the movie “Star Wars.” (Scroll down for video of singing seal.)
Three young gray seals were monitored from birth to see what sounds they could make naturally, then trained to copy new sounds, according to a press release from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The university coordinated the research.
One seal, Zola, proved particularly adept at copying melodies.
She was able to copy as many as 10 notes of tunes like the “Star Wars” theme and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” (Watch singing seal in video player below.)
Researchers Amanda Stansbury, who currently works as a zoo area supervisor at the El Paso Zoo, and Vincent Janik of the university’s Scottish Oceans Institute, believe gray seals could be used to study speech disorders.
“I was amazed how well the seals copied the model sounds we played to them,” said Stansbury, who was the lead researcher on the project while earning her Ph.D. at St Andrews.
“Copies were not perfect but given that these are not typical seal sounds it is pretty impressive,” she said.
The study improves our understanding of the evolution of vocal learning, which is key for language development, according to Janik, who is director of the institute.
There are very few mammals, such as whales, dolphins and elephants, that can copy sounds from humans, but they use different mechanisms, said Janik, and our close relations, chimps and gorillas, have surprisingly limited vocal skills.
“Seals are the only mammals we know of now that use the same mechanisms,” Janik said.
“Finding other mammals that use their vocal tract in the same way as us to modify sounds informs us on how vocal skills are influenced by genetics and learning and can ultimately help to develop new methods to study speech disorders,” he said in a statement.
Hoover, a harbor seal who lived at the New England Aquarium in the 1970s and 1980s, was recorded repeating phrases he had learned from the previous owner who had rescued him as a pup: “Hey, Hoover! Get over here! Come on!” — rendered with the man’s pronounced Maine accent.
The Scottish study also suggests that seal communications may be more complex than previously thought, Janik indicated.
“If you have a bigger vocabulary you can communicate about more content,” he said, adding that researchers will use the study to investigate seal communications further.
The full results of the research are published in the journal Current Biology.