STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
When the news is as distressing as it sometimes is, we may all need a story like this next one - the story of a singing seal. NPR's Daniella Cheslow reports on the training methods of the seal, which could someday help humans.
DANIELLA CHESLOW, BYLINE: This is the sound of a computer playing the "Star Wars" theme song...
(SOUNDBITE OF COMPUTERIZED VERSION OF "STAR WARS" THEME)
CHESLOW: ...And a gray seal named Zola.
(SOUNDBITE OF SEAL BARKING "STAR WARS" THEME)
CHESLOW: Nailed it.
Researcher Amanda Stansbury trained Zola and two other gray seal pups for a year.
AMANDA STANSBURY: What's new about this research is we taught the seals how to imitate new sounds.
CHESLOW: Stansbury says, first, she recorded the seals making their natural sounds and played those sounds back to the seals.
STANSBURY: The seals learned that, hey, if I make the same noise back, I'm going to get a fish.
CHESLOW: Next, Stansbury played those same sounds at higher frequencies. And eventually, she strung a few of those notes together.
STANSBURY: The first time that you hear them actually, like, imitate something recognizable back, it just blows you away.
CHESLOW: The other two seals managed to copy vowels. Zola moved on to "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."
(SOUNDBITE OF SEAL BARKING "TWINKLE, TWINKLE, LITTLE STAR")
CHESLOW: Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker, tweeted the study, writing - another royalty for John Williams. Stansbury offered the composer of the "Star Wars" theme an unusual payoff.
STANSBURY: The seals might be able to share some of their fish while they're out there back in the wild. That's about the only royalties that we're going to have for John Williams.
CHESLOW: Stansbury is now a supervisor at the El Paso Zoo in Texas. She says other animals, like birds and dolphins, can also learn sounds, but seals are unique because they have vocal cords. That might bring a new hope to human speech therapy.
Daniella Cheslow, NPR News.
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