Listen to these grey seals sing the melodies of the Star Wars theme and "Mary Had a Little Lamb"! They don't have perfect pitch, but the fact that they do it at all is amazing. An experiment led by Amanda Stansbury and Vincent Janik of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland shows they can learn to produce not only music, but human vowel sounds.
Three young grey seals were used in the study: Gandalf, a male, and Zola and Janice, two females. The seals were born on the Isle of May and brought to the marine mammal facility at the University of St. Andrews when they were very young, with training starting shortly thereafter and lasting for 12 months. The three seals were allowed to co-mingle with other juveniles in three enclosures, and they were released back into the wild a year after they were captured.
“We first taught them to produce their own seal sounds in response to our training signals,” said Janik. “We then changed those sounds in the computer to create different pitches and melodies. Once they succeeded in copying these tunes, we presented vowels spoken by a human and transferred to an easier frequency band for the animals.”
Zola demonstrated a proficiency at copying melodies, singing up to 10 notes of songs like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and the melody to Star Wars. Janice and Gandolf were able to replicate combinations of human vowel sounds. Over the course of hundreds of trials, the seals were able to copy and express all possible vowel combinations of A, E, I, O U.
Read more about the experiment and its implications at Gizmodo.