Researchers from the University of St Andrews have recently found that grey seals can copy songs and human speech. Studies show seals can mimic using human sounds using the same method of sound production. They change their formants, the frequency that determines the phonetic quality of a vowel.
Working with three young seals, researcher’s Dr Amanda Stansbury and Professor Vincent Janik of the Scottish Ocean Institute at the University of St Andrews, monitored their development from birth studying their natural repertoire.
The grey seals were trained to copy new sounds. One seal, Zola, can copy melodies, such as the popular children’s song, ‘twinkle twinkle little star’. The other two seals can successfully copy vowel sounds.
Researchers believe that their findings could result in some major breakthroughs in speech disorder studies.
One of the study leaders, who now works at El Paso Zoo in Texas, Dr Amanda Stansbury, was very pleased with the results of the joint study. 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.”
The director of the Scottish Ocean Institute, at the University of St Andrews, Professor Vincent Janik, said: “This study gives us a better understanding of the evolution of vocal learning, a skill that is crucial for human language development…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.”