Zola, Gandalf and Janice may be the Pavarottis of the seal world. They may also be the world’s dampest Star Wars fans. The trio of gray seals took part in a study led by biologists at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland where they learned to mimic human vocalizations and music.
“Copies were not perfect but given that these are not typical seal sounds it is pretty impressive. Our study really demonstrates how flexible seal vocalizations are,” said lead researcher Amanda Stansbury. “Previous studies just provided anecdotal evidence for this.”
The team published their results in the journal Current Biology and released a video of the seals at work. It kicks off with a tune that resembles the Star Wars theme.
The seals weren’t instant mimics. They first went through training to match sounds from their natural repertoire before learning to copy more human-like vocalizations.
The researchers played notes and combinations of vowels to the seals, which did their best to echo them back. Zola, in particular, was good at this exercise. She could copy up to 10 notes of songs, including the classic children’s melody Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
Hearing the seals speak and sing is both cute and funny, but the researchers are doing some serious work here.
“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 study co-author Vincent Janik, director of the Scottish Oceans Institute.
The researchers have a license to work with seals, which are kept in the facility for less than a year. “All of the animals are now back in the wild,” Janik said.
Hopefully they’re serenading other creatures of the sea.
Originally published June 21, 9:16 a.m. PT.