Animals Video

By Neo Bye

Amazing new research has shown that seals are capable of singing nursery rhymes, including Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

In footage captured by Dr Amanda Stansbury and Professor Vincent Janik, of the Scottish Oceans Institute (SOI) at the University of St Andrews, three young seals can be seen howling and growling in response to a number of simple soundbites.

The soundbites include nursery rhymes, human vowel sounds and a range of musical scales to test the seals responses to the various notes.

One of the seals, Zola, copies the melody of the famous nursery rhyme with impeccable accuracy which includes 10 notes that were successfully imitated.

Two other seals were taught combinations of human vowel sounds that they copied accurately.

These seals were trained to copy these sounds by altering their formants, the parts of human speech that encodes most of the information that we convey to each other.

Lead researcher Dr Amanda 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.”

Professor Vincent 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.”