Three young grey seals have successfully mimicked human vocal tones, giving researchers insight into how they may be able to study speech disorders in humans.
In exchange for tasty fish, the three seals — Zola, Janice and Gandalf — learned how to copy human speech and music, according to researchers at Scotland’s University of St Andrews.
Researchers wasted no time in teaching these seals two songs that every young marine creature should know: The theme to “Star Wars” and “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
The study was spearheaded by Dr. Amanda Stansbury, who was working toward her Ph.D. at St Andrews under the supervision of Vincent Janik, the director of the Scottish Oceans Institute.
Stansbury and Janik published the findings in Current Biology, outlining the training process used to teach the seals how to reproduce human sound.
Stansbury told NPR that she used fish as an incentive for the seals to voluntarily come out of the water and sing a series of 4-7 notes. She started by recording the seal’s own sounds and playing them back.
“The seals learned that, hey, if I make the same noise back, I’m going to get a fish,” Stansbury said.
Once the seals were familiar with the process, Stansbury and Janik used a computer to slightly adjust the sounds, such as higher or longer tones, and rewarded the seals for matching the new sounds.
Of the three wild seals, Zola, a female, showed the most promise in repeating the tones. She was able to mimic a short Star Wars theme melody, as shown on a YouTube video of her performance.
“The first time that you hear them actually imitate something recognizable back, it just blows you away,” Stansbury said.
Stansbury, who now works as a zoo area supervisor at the El Paso Zoo in Texas, believes the seals would be capable of singing longer melodies if she had more time with them. After one year of research, the three seal pups were released back into the wild.
“We haven’t fully studied the full extent and maybe how complex of melodies these guys would be capable of learning,” she said.
— Mark Hamill (@HamillHimself) June 21, 2019
Mark Hamill, famous for his role as Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars,” saw the video of Zola’s crooning and joked online, “Another royalty for John Williams.”
While composer John Williams may not receive any benefit from Zola’s learning, there is a chance that humans who struggle with varying speech impairments might.
Janik told CNN that grey seals could be used to study speech disorders in humans, given that the seals have a vocal tract that is very similar to ourselves.
“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,” Janik said.
While Zola is back in the wild for now, we cannot help but wonder if she still gets Star Wars music stuck in her head from time to time.
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