Seals have been trained to sing, debut with Star Wars theme and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

We hope they go indie and avoid the major music labels now that three grey seals that have been trained to copy speech, have also learned the notes from popular music including the Star Wars theme and the nursery rhyme Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

Researchers worked with the seals from birth, training them to copy new sounds by changing their formants. (Formants are emphasized frequency bands in our speech sounds. They are parts of our speech sounds that we modify to encode information.)

It was a step process: The seals were first trained to copy sequences of their own sounds, and then create melodies in their pitch. Human vowel sounds were later presented to the animals, which they then copied.

One seal, named Zola, was particularly good at copying melodies played to her, including up to 10 notes of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

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Listen to Zola and the other seals sing!

zola sings



Study Highlights

  • Vocal learning is crucial for language acquisition but relatively rare in animals
  • We tested whether gray seals can copy melodies and human formants
  • Seals were versatile vocal learners copying vowels and peak frequency of melodies
  • Seals used the same supra-laryngeal structures as humans when copying model sounds


Vocal production learning is a rare communication skill and has only been found in selected avian and mammalian species [,,,]. Although humans use learned formants and voiceless sounds to encode most lexical information [], evidence for vocal learning in other animals tends to focus on the modulation pattern of the fundamental frequency [,]. Attempts to teach mammals to produce human speech sounds have largely been unsuccessful, most notably in extensive studies on great apes []. The limited evidence for formant copying in mammals raises the question whether advanced learned control over formant production is uniquely human. We show that gray seals (Halichoerus grypus) have the ability to match modulations in peak frequency patterns of call sequences or melodies by modifying the formants in their own calls, moving outside of their normal repertoire’s distribution of frequencies and even copying human vowel sounds. Seals also demonstrated enhanced auditory memory for call sequences by accurately copying sequential changes in peak frequency and the number of calls played to them. Our results demonstrate that formants can be influenced by vocal production learning in non-human vocal learners, providing a mammalian substrate for the evolution of flexible information coding in formants as found in human language.


Journal reference: Stansbury, A. & Janik, V. (2019). Formant Modification through Vocal Production Learning in Gray Seals, Current Biology,

Study: DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2019.05.071 / Overview