The study, conducted at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, will help researchers in understanding speech disorders

By Matt McNulty
June 21, 2019 09:17 AM

In a galaxy not so far away!

Grey seals can be trained to mimic human speech patterns and even song melodies, according to researchers at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Three grey seals were observed and studied from birth, where researchers then examined their natural sounds before training them to learn new ones. One of the seals, named Zola, was able to reproduce up to 10 notes from songs like “Twinkle, twinkle little star.” Zola could also mimic part of the Star Wars theme song.

While the singing seals are clearly adorable, the study has a much deeper purpose than cute videos, as researchers at the university’s Scottish Oceans Institute believe the animals could be used to help study speech disorders, according to a press release from the university.

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“I was amazed how well the seals copied the model sounds we played to them,” lead researcher of the study Amanda Stansbury said in the press release. “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.”

Researchers said the purpose of training the seals with songs and melodies will undoubtedly help in improving comprehension of speech and vocal learning and how language develops, according to the director of the university’s Scottish Oceans Institute, Vincent Janik.

Gray seal
University of St Andrews

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“This study gives us a better understanding of the evolution of vocal learning, a skill that is crucial for human language development,” Janik said.

While humans are more closely related to the likes of chimpanzees and gorillas, those mammals have limited vocal communication skills. Dolphins, whales and elephants have the ability to mimic human sounds, but only seals use the same vocal mechanisms that humans do, according to researchers involved with the study.

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“Seals are the only mammals we know of now that use the same mechanisms,” Janik told CNN. “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.”

The full study can be found in Current Biology.

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