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Grey seals copy human speech and music

Grey seals can copy human speech and songs using the same sound production mechanisms as humans, new research carried out at the University of St Andrews has found.

The study, published today in the journal Current Biology, found that seals could be a new model system to study speech disorders.

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

These seals were then trained to copy new sounds by changing their formants, the parts of human speech sounds that encode most of the information that we convey to each other.

Zola, one of the seals, 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 other popular themes. Two other seals were taught combinations of human vowel sounds that they copied accurately.

 

Lead researcher Dr Stansbury, who now works at El Paso Zoo in Texas, 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.”

Professor Janik, Director of the SOI at the University of St Andrews, 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.”


A video of the seals is available online at https://youtu.be/-ahW_f5Sd3Q

The paper, ‘Formant Modification through Vocal Production Learning in Grey Seals’ by Amanda L Stansbury and Vincent M Janik is published in Current Biology and is available via the DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2019.05.071

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office.

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11 thoughts on "Grey seals copy human speech and music"

  1. Kerry says:

    Good evening,

    I would like to complain about the dirty conditions this seal appears to be kept in. Please could you explain why the pool and surrounding area look extremely dirty?

    Kind regards

    Kerry

  2. Larraine Howell says:

    Why are these seals living in such dirty and disgusting conditions? Their pool areas are very small and are rife with algae, the water is dirty and murky, why are you allowing these poor animals to live in such awful conditions? I a m not impressed by your research I am appalled that you treat these beautiful and intelligent creatures with such a disgusting lack of regard for their environmental living conditions, please rectify this!

    1. Curt says:

      Please try to replicate their natural habitat. You know, add some floating plastic bottles, dirty diapers, hypodermic needles.

  3. University of St Andrews says:

    The University of St Andrews has a Home Office project licence and meets all the standards required to work with seals from the wild, with the ultimate aim of protecting and conserving the species. These mammals help inform how we can ensure the health of grey seals in the future.

    While the seals are with us, they receive veterinary care of the highest quality. All animals kept by us are released back into the wild within a year, often much sooner. Tagging studies showed that these animals behave in the same way as other wild seals, after release from our facility. Vocalisations are a natural part of grey seal behaviour and our studies examined how they copy sounds they hear in their environment. Typically, over 95% of our work with seals is in the wild.

    The pools are filled and refreshed with fresh seawater every day and are not dirty. Naturally occurring algae and seaweed, which are part of the seals’ natural habitat, are allowed to form in the pools.

  4. BJ says:

    It looks like the seals are very anxious to get back in the water as soon as they repeat the sounds… almost as if they are scared. Any idea why?

    1. Heather says:

      Stage fright, I expect.

    2. University of St Andrews says:

      The seals are returning to the water as that is where their reward (a piece of fish) is being delivered. Handing seals food is dangerous and putting it on the floor makes it hard for the seals to pick it up.

  5. Breda says:

    I think this is incredible science being done and it deserves a reaction other than “harrumph, you are surrounding the seals with ALGAE, how RUDE.” Seals. Are. Used. To. Algae. Go to any aquarium and you’ll see the same conditions. Calm down, internet outrage.

  6. Paul says:

    Internet trolls are addicted to outrage and used to seeing freshly squeegeed tanks in peoples homes or the petstore. The clean tank suits us and our sensibilities. The fish AND the seals thrive in the natural conditions which are NOT antiseptic!

    I’m also curious as to why they immediately dive back in the pool.

    1. University of St Andrews says:

      The seals are returning to the water as that is where their reward (a piece of fish) is being delivered. Handing seals food is dangerous and putting it on the floor makes it hard for the seals to pick it up.

  7. Rachel Ward says:

    I appreciate that the researchers aren’t using permanently captive animals. Way to go! And good on you for refreshing their water straight from the ocean. Though it may not be clean, it is what they have come from and will be returning to. It is clear you are conducting your studies in the safest and most thoughtful manner possible.

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