• Researchers worked with the 3 young grey seals from birth.
  • 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 Star Wars.
  • Two other seals were taught combinations of human vowel sounds that they copied accurately enough for them to be considered human learnt noises and not regular seal noises. 
  • The study give us a better understanding of the evolution of vocal learning, a skill that is crucial for human language development.

Grey seals can form words and sing like humans, new research suggests.

University of St Andrews researchers found 3 trained animals were able to copy speech, as well as notes from songs including the Star Wars theme tune, reports PA.

Researchers Dr Amanda Stansbury and Professor Vincent Janik, of the Scottish Oceans Institute (SOI) at the University of St Andrews, worked with 3 young grey seals from birth to determine their natural repertoire.

One of them, 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 the Star Wars theme tune. 

The other seals were taught combinations of human vowel sounds that they copied accurately enough for the researchers to conclude they were not seal noises, but human-learnt noises. 

“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,” said lead researcher Stansbury.

The study give us a better understanding of the evolution of vocal learning, a skill that is crucial for human language development, claim the researchers.

“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,” said Janik.

However, this does not necessarily mean that the mammals could learn to talk like humans the understanding is lacking. 

“While seals can copy such sentences, they would not know what they mean,” Janik told PA. 

The seals were first trained to copy sequences of their own sounds, and then create melodies in their pitch.

Human vowel sounds were later presented to the animals, which they then copied.

The findings suggest they could be used to study speech disorders and test different methods for slower learners, the researchers said.

The study was published in the journal Current Biology

Receive a single WhatsApp every morning with all our latest news: click here.

Also from Business Insider South Africa: