Marine mammals are known to make alls sorts of sounds. Dolphins click, whales moan, walruses bellow and seals bark. Well, most seals bark. Three talented seals at the Scottish Oceans Institute can sing the opening bars of the Star Wars theme and "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."
Researchers at the University of St. Andrews began working with three young gray seals—Zola, Janice and Gandalf—from the time they were born until they were released into the wild at the age of one. The researchers recorded the natural vocalizations made by the seals, then played them back to them. The young seals learned that if they mimicked the vocalization that was played, they’d get a fish.
As the training progressed, the team altered those vocalizations raising and lowering the tones. The seals were able to match the new notes as well. Eventually, the team was able to string the vocalizations together into recognizable tunes. While Janice and Gandalf were pretty good at mimicking human vowel sounds, Zola was the real star, able to sing the first ten notes or so of the Star Wars theme and “Twinkle, Twinkle.” The research appears in the journal Current Biology.
“The first time that you hear them actually imitate something recognizable back, it just blows you away,” first author Amanda Stansbury, now at the El Paso Zoo, tells Daniella Cheslow at NPR.
Teaching a seal to sing is undoubtedly cool, but there’s scientific motivations behind the exercise as well. Seal vocalizations are not well studied, and Stansbury and her co-author, biologist Vincent Janik also of St. Andrews, were interested in finding out how the sounds are made and eventually, how the seals communicate with each other. As human-generated noise increases across the ocean, knowing how seals use vocalization in the wild is important for species conservation, reports George Dvorsky at Gizmodo.
The study could also have implications for humans as well. Because seals make their sounds using techniques similar to what humans use to speak, it could provide insights into vocal learning in mammals, including humans.
“The anatomical structures used for producing vocalizations such as the vocal cords, larynx, and mouth cavities are the same for seals and humans,” Janik tells Gizmodo’s Dvorsky. “Other vocal learners use different structures. Birds, for example, do not have a larynx but a different structure called a syrinx to produce sounds. Dolphins use muscles in their nasal air passages to produce learned sounds.”
While it’s impressive that the seals could sing anything remotely recognizable, Stansbury tells NPR’s Cheslow that she believes the singing pups could have learned much longer melodies had the study kept going.
(Perhaps they could have added “I Am the Walrus” or “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” to the mix.)