It might arguably be considered barking, but scientists claim to have taught seals to 'sing' popular tunes, such as the Star Wars melody.

Seals have a natural bark, but researchers at the Scottish Oceans Institute (SOI) at the University of St Andrews, trained them to copy sounds outside of their natural repertoire.

Zola, one of the seals, was particularly good at reproducing tunes that were played to her, mastering John Williams' theme from Star Wars, the nursery rhyme Old MacDonald Had a Farm, and up to ten notes of folk melody Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, the Telegraph UK reports.

The study suggests that seals could be used as a new model system to study speech disorders. Photo / University of St Andrews
The study suggests that seals could be used as a new model system to study speech disorders. Photo / University of St Andrews

Two other seals were taught combinations of human vowel sounds such as 'ha', 'ooh' and 'ah' which they copied fairly accurately.

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Lead researcher Dr Amanda Stansbury said: "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.

"I was amazed how well the seals copied the model sounds we played to them."

All seals communicate vocally but the type of noises they make vary from species to species. While Arctic seals growl, groan and chug, Weddell seals make high-pitched underwater long low whistles and harbor seal pups sound like sheep when calling for their mothers.

Male seals tend to be the most vocal as in the wild they use their calls to defend their territory or attract females from nearly 20 miles away.

The St Andrews scientists say the research shows that grey seals can copy human speech and songs using the same sound production mechanisms as humans

It took hundreds of trials to teach the seals what to do, but once they get the idea they can copy the sounds well, said the researcher.

The study suggests that seals could be used as a new model system to study speech disorders.

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Two other seals were taught combinations of human vowel sounds such as 'ha', 'ooh' and 'ah' which they copied fairly accurately. Photo / University of St Andrews
Two other seals were taught combinations of human vowel sounds such as 'ha', 'ooh' and 'ah' which they copied fairly accurately. Photo / University of St Andrews

Seals use the same brain and anatomical structures as humans to produce the sounds so may give insights into how to help people who struggle with talking.

Professor Vincent Janik, Director of the Institute, said: "This study gives us a better understanding of the evolution of vocal learning, a skill that is crucial for human language development.

"Surprisingly, nonhuman 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."

It is not the first time that seals have been recorded copying human sounds. A research paper in the 1980s reported a seal called Hoover in the New England Aquarium in Boston who could say phrases such as 'How are you?'

But researchers say it is the first study to show just how flexible the vocalisations are.

Zola and her friends have now been released back into the wild.

The research was published in the journal Current Biology.