As cute and lovable as seals are, their contributions to the musical canon have, frankly, been minimal at best.
But that could theoretically change now that researchers in Scotland have taught three gray seals to actually sing songs like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and the “Star Wars” theme.
Scientists at the University of St. Andrews raised the seals from birth in order to study how successful the animals might be at vocal learning, a skill crucial for learning a language but one that is relatively rare in animals.
According to a new report published in the scientific journal Current Biology, researchers wanted to see whether the seals could be taught to copy melodies and human formants, the parts of speech sounds humans use to encode information.
“For example, different vowels only differ in their formants,” researcher Vincent Janik explained to New Scientist.
The seals were trained to copy sequences of their own sounds, and then to turn those into melodies.
The animals also learned to copy human vowel sounds, Janik said.
It wasn’t easy at first, but the seals eventually caught on.
“It takes hundreds of trials to teach the seal what we want it to do, but once they get the idea they can copy a new sound pretty well at the first attempt,” he said.
One seal, named Zola, learned to bark out both “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and the theme to “Star Wars,” as the video here demonstrates.
To be fair, Zola’s voice sounds more like a setting on a cheap Casio keyboard than, say, Rihanna, Beyoncé or Ariana Grande.
Nonetheless, her vocal prowess gets a thumbs-up from lead researcher Amanda Stansbury.
“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,” she told the BBC.
“Our study really demonstrates how flexible seal vocalizations are,” she added. “Previous studies just provided anecdotal evidence for this.”
But while seals might be able to learn to make vocal sounds resembling singing, Janik pointed out there’s a big difference between copying language and understanding it.
“Our study suggests that [seals] have the production skills to produce human language. Whether they can make sense of it would be the next question,” he said, according to the Evening Standard. “We would have to investigate whether they are able to label objects vocally, which is a key requirement for actually talking about things.”
So while these seals have a long way to go to match the musical efforts of the Beatles, the Eagles or even the Arctic Monkeys, Janik does think their work will help scientists better understand human speech disorders.
“Since seals use the same neural and anatomical structures as humans to produce these sounds, they provide a good model system in which to study how speech sounds are learned,” he said.