Seal learns to sing "Star Wars" theme song

By Christopher Brito

/ CBS News

Scientists have discovered that grey seals can mimic human speech and songs using the same sound production mechanisms as people. Researchers at the University of St Andrews in Scotland monitored three grey seals since birth and played them sounds to honk back — with encouraging results that they say could help humans in the future.

A seal named Zola was a standout. She was able to copy up to 10 notes in melodies such as the "Star Wars" theme song and "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," according to the study — and the researchers posted video to prove it. Two other seals, Janice and Gandalf, were taught combinations of human vowel sounds that they reproduced accurately. The results were published Thursday in the scientific journal Current Biology.

Grey Seals compilation by University of St Andrews on YouTube

Dr. Amanda Stansbury and Professor Vincent Janik of the Scottish Oceans Institute at the University of St Andrews worked with the three seals since they were born. Stansbury said she was "amazed" at how well the seals could model the sounds.

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"Copies were not perfect but given that these are not typical seal sounds it is pretty impressive," Stansbury said in the university's news release. "Our study really demonstrates how flexible seal vocalisations are. Previous studies just provided anecdotal evidence for this."

Janik said the study has implications for humans as well as seals, and could help shed light on speech disorders.

"This study gives us a better understanding of the evolution of vocal learning, a skill that is crucial for human language development," he said. "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."

First published on June 21, 2019 / 2:57 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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