Scientists at the Scottish Oceans Institute (SOI) at the University of St Andrews have found that grey seals can convincingly copy and repeat human sounds using the same production mechanisms.
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.
The animals were then trained to copy new sounds by changing their formants – the parts of human speech sounds that encode most of the information people convey to each other.
One seal in the study proved particularly good at copying melodies that were played to it, repeating up to ten notes of songs such as ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ and other popular themes.
Two others were taught combinations of human vowel sounds that they were able to accurately replicate.
Surprisingly, man’s closest relatives– primates – are much less adept at such tasks.
As a result of the findings, the scientists believe seals could provide a new model system for studying speech disorders in humans.
Lead researcher Dr Amanda Stansbury, who now works at El Paso Zoo in the US, 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, said: “This study gives us a better understanding of the evolution of vocal learning, a skill that is crucial for human language development.
“Surprisingly, non-human 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.”
Grey seals are one of the rarest seal species globally. The UK is home to an estimated 120,000 – around 40 per cent of the world’s population.
The rocky coasts of the Outer Hebrides and Orkney are major strongholds for the species, which is protected in UK waters.
The grey seal has a distinctive horse-like face with a long muzzle, large eyes and long whiskers, and speckled fur that can vary from light grey to black. They eat mainly fish, especially sandeels, but also squid and occasionally birds.
Pollution, entanglement in discarded fishing gear and disturbance by tourists are the key threats to their survival.