Grey seals can learn to sing like humans, says study

Media caption,
Seals were taught musical notes and human vowels

Grey seals can copy human speech and songs using the same sound production process as humans, new research has found.

The St Andrews University team was "amazed" at how well the animals copied the sounds played to them.

The study featured three grey seals which were monitored from birth.

One of them, named Zola, was particularly good at mimicking melodies such as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and the Star Wars theme tune.

They were trained to copy new sounds by changing their formants, the parts of speech sounds that encode most of the information we convey to each other.

Two other seals were taught combinations of human vowel sounds that they reproduced accurately.

Lead researcher Dr Amanda Stansbury said: "I was amazed how well the seals copied the model sounds we played to them.

"Copies were not perfect but given that these are not typical seal sounds it is pretty impressive.

"Our study really demonstrates how flexible seal vocalisations are. Previous studies just provided anecdotal evidence for this."

Can seals make sense of language?

Professor Vincent Janik, director of the Scottish Oceans Institute at St Andrews University, said the study had provided a "better understanding of the evolution of vocal learning" which is a skill crucial for human language development.

He explained: "Surprisingly, non-human primates have very limited abilities in this domain.

"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."

However, the research - which is published in the journal, Current Biology - does not indicate that the mammals could learn to talk like humans.

Pro Janik said: "While seals can copy such sentences, they would not know what they mean.

"We would have to investigate whether they are able to label objects vocally, which is a key requirement for actually talking about things.

"Our study suggests that they have the production skills to produce human language. Whether they can make sense of it would be the next question."

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