A team of researchers from the Scottish Oceans Institute at the University of St Andrews worked with three young gray seals and monitored them from birth to determine their natural repertoire.
These seals — Zola, Janice and Gandalf — were then trained to copy new sounds by changing their formants, the parts of human speech sounds that encode most of the information that we convey to each other.
Zola was particularly good at copying melodies that were played to her, copying up to ten notes of songs such as ‘Twinkle twinkle little star’ and other popular themes. Janice and Gandalf were taught combinations of human vowel sounds that they copied accurately.
“I was amazed how well the seals copied the model sounds we played to them,” said lead author Dr. Amanda Stansbury, who now works at El Paso Zoo in Texas.
“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.”
“This study gives us a better understanding of the evolution of vocal learning, a skill that is crucial for human language development,” said Professor Vincent Janik, Director of the Scottish Oceans Institute.
“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.”
Amanda L. Stansbury et al. Formant Modification through Vocal Production Learning in Gray Seals. Current Biology, published online June 20, 2019; doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2019.05.071