Child seals can modulate the pitch of their voice, very like people do

Credit score: John O’ Connor.

Within the Eighties, one of many largest points of interest on the New England Aquarium was Hoover the Speaking Seal. The identify says all of it, as Hoover was well-known for parroting human speech. The feminine seal was rescued as a pup by a person from Maine who took Hoover house earlier than transferring to the aquarium. Throughout this time, Hoover remarkably discovered the best way to imitate a few of his proprietor’s vocal antics, together with the Maine accent.

You possibly can clearly hear the seal saying “Hoover recover from right here! Come on, come on!” on this 1984 recording.

Vocal studying — the power to accumulate vocalization by means of studying — could be very uncommon within the animal kingdom. Nevertheless, scientists are very a lot on this trait as it could reveal the evolutionary path that took our ancestors from blabbering primates to the extremely articulated beings we’re as we speak, able to conveying speech, singing, and a large ranging vocal repertoire.

In addition to people, this capability is usually restricted to birds, that are, evolutionarily-speaking, as distant from us as dinosaurs are. This is the reason Hoover’s story is so vital since seals appear to be one of many uncommon examples of vocal management and plasticity in mammals. However is that this high quality current throughout the species or was Hoover just a few oddball?


This inquiry impressed Andrea Ravignani from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics to conduct a brand new research that investigated the vocalization talents of seals. Ravignani and colleagues studied eight harbor seal pups no older than three weeks that had been held in captivity at a rehabilitation heart within the Netherlands earlier than being launched again into the wild.

Over the course of a number of days, the pups had been uncovered to audio recordings of noises from the close by Wadden Sea. These recordings weren’t chosen accidentally. Co-author Laura Torres Borda of the College of Paris 13 went there with a microphone to document the pure noises of the ocean as a result of that’s what seal pups are used to of their pure habitat.

“The principle problem was to design the experiment in a manner which might be significant to raised perceive the origins of human speech,” Ravignani stated.

The recordings had been performed again at three volumes, various from virtually silence to 65 decibels (equal to the noise made by a quick automotive at 25 ft away), however with an analogous tone to that of the seal pups’ calls.

People and animals alike elevate their voices when there’s noise within the atmosphere in order that they’re heard and understood higher. This is called the Lombard impact, and one seal clearly demonstrated this phenomenon, producing louder calls when the audio ranges had been greater. However that’s not all they did.

“If child seals acted as most animals, we might simply count on them to extend the depth of their voices as noise elevated. Nevertheless, what seals did was decrease the pitch of their voices to flee the frequency vary of noise, one thing that solely animals with good management of their larynx (together with people however probably excluding most mammals) can do. This exhibits vocal plasticity in seal pups from an early age, suggesting that seals could also be one of many only a few mammals which, like people when singing or talking a tonal language, can flexibly modulate the pitch of their voices,” Ravignani advised ZME Science.

The truth that seals can modulate their vocalizations spontaneously and with out coaching is placing. Even chimps, our closest dwelling family members, can not do that, which makes the origin of speech maybe much more mysterious. People are the one mammals that we all know of which have a direct neural connection between the cortex and the larynx (the organ on the prime of the neck that’s accountable for the tone of your voice). Maybe seals share this neural connection as effectively, which is what scientists intend to seek out out.

“Usually, this work is a part of my bigger analysis agenda geared toward establishing seals as prime animal mannequin species to raised perceive the origins and evolution of human speech and music. Whereas at first, they might appear an uncommon mannequin, they provide untapped potential for comparative analysis, being extra intently associated to us than the much-studied songbirds and parrots, whereas spontaneously exhibiting extra music-like and speech-like behaviors than say apes and monkeys,” Ravignani stated.

Simply final week, researchers from the identical Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics discovered {that a} sort of lemur from Madagascar, often known as the indri, has songs that exhibit a kind of rhythm only previously seen in humans. Along with seal vocalizations, these findings counsel that varied constructing blocks for human speech could also be discovered throughout totally different animal species. It’s simply that we’ve one way or the other been fortunate sufficient to place all of them collectively.

“By discovering one other mammal who can modulate the pitch of its voice, we will begin constructing an evolutionary tree of constructing blocks of speech, and present that a few of these are usually not in reality uniquely human,” Ravignani stated.

The findings appeared within the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences. | Child seals can modulate the pitch of their voice, very like people do


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