- University of St Andrews
- Scientists at the University of St Andrews trained seals to copy songs like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and the “Star Wars” theme as well as human vowel sounds.
- Researchers Amanda Stansbury and Vincent Janik from the Scottish Oceans Institute raised three young grey seals from birth to study speech disorders.
- They were amazed how well the seals were able to copy what they heard.
- “Copies were not perfect but given that these are not typical seal sounds it is pretty impressive,” said Stansbury. “Our study really demonstrates how flexible seal vocalizations are.”
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It’s one of life’s great tragedies that animals can’t talk. But researchers at the University of St Andrews may have brought them a little closer by successfully getting them to sing the “Star Wars” theme and “Twinkle Tinkle Little Star” as part of a project to get them to copy human speech and songs.
In a new study, published in the journal Current Biology, the team of scientists used seals as a model system to study speech disorders. Amanda Stansbury and Vincent Janik from the Scottish Oceans Institute raised three young grey seals from birth, and taught them to copy sounds.
One of the seals, Zola, became very skilled at copying melodies, like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” The two others were taught to mimic human vowel sounds.
“I was amazed how well the seals copied the model sounds we played to them,” said Stansbury.
“Copies were not perfect but given that these are not typical seal sounds it is pretty impressive. Our study really demonstrates how flexible seal vocalizations are.”
She added that previous studies have only hinted at this ability. Janik said the results give an indication of how vocal learning can evolve, which is “crucial for human language development.”
“Surprisingly, nonhuman primates have very limited abilities in this domain,” he 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.”
You can watch the video of the seals’ talents below.