Taking into account even the most horrendous of shower-time singers, the vocal prowess of humans goes mostly unmatched in the animal kingdom. But scientists in Scotland have now found success training grey seals to mimic the human voice and even belt out the melodies to some well-known tunes, a skill they say may hold lessons for those studying speech disorders in people.

The research was carried out at the University of St Andrews and involved three young grey seals, which the scientists monitored from birth in order to understand their normal behaviors. They then got to work trying to train the seals to mimic human sounds, finding that indeed the animals could do so by making changes to what are known as formants.

These are frequency bands that carry much of the information we humans use to communicate different vowels. The team found that the seals could be taught different combinations of vowel sounds and accurately repeat these combinations back to them.

“I was amazed how well the seals copied the model sounds we played to them,” said lead researcher Dr Amanda 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. Previous studies just provided anecdotal evidence for this.”

The team found particular success with a seal called Zola, who was able to repeat up to 10 notes of popular songs including classics such as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and the theme to Star Wars. While an impressive spectacle in itself, because it is rarely seen in animals the scientists are hopeful the singing abilities of the seals can serve as a new kind of model for studying speech disorders in humans.

“This study gives us a better understanding of the evolution of vocal learning, a skill that is crucial for human language development,” said Professor Janik, Director of the SOI at the University of St Andrews. “Surprisingly, nonhuman 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.”

You can see the seals do their thing in the video below, while the research was published in the journal Current Biology.


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