Vocal learning evolved independently across scattered vertebrate lineages – and we still do not know why. Taking a comparative approach – to see in which taxa vocal learning is and is not - will help tease out the drivers of this most intriguing ability. We are looking at several different species where there may (and even where there may not) be vocal learning – the leopard seal, New Zealand fur seals, Tasmanian devil, feathertail glider & others.
The leopard seal is of particular interest as they appear to show plastic vocal behaviour. Younger male seals have an array of many different call types this stabilizes into a few stylized call types when an adult.
Call characteristics of high-double trill leopard seal hydrurga leptonyx vocalizations from three antarctic locations
Individual variation in the acoustic behavior of the adult male leopard seal Hydrurga leptonyx
Male seals produce their vocalizations in individually-distinctive sequences.
Leopard seals have geographic variation in their calling repertoires.
Captive leopard seals as adults have very different calls to wild seals.
We have been conducting tutoring experiments to introduce novel calls into the male’s repertoire, in the video below I'm playing him bearded seal vocalisations to see if he can learn a new sound – check out the video.