the deceptive vocalizations of the baby sea calf

A talking sea calf? That a parrot imitates its master does not surprise anyone, but Hoover’s case is more singular. In 1971, this newborn seal was found on a beach in Maine, near the corpse of its mother. George Swallow, brother-in-law of his rescuer, decides to take him in. The boarder refuses at first to lap up milk, then begins to greedily inhale mashed fish. Its gluttony earned it its name, inspired by a brand of vacuum cleaners.

Hoover and George Swallow get along like thieves at a fair, the seal accompanying the human in his car nose to the wind or hiding to surprise his master, whose expressions he soon begins to reproduce: “Hello there”, “Get out of there and come over here” (“Hello to you”, “Get out of here and come here”). But Hoover’s appetite becomes gargantuan, and the Swallows decide to entrust him to the New England Aquarium in Boston.

The young seal then wallows in silence, and does not come out of it until five years later, having become an adult, resuming the speech of George Swallow. It is the attraction, with the young male Salisbury, who is content with a ” Hello “ less believable. In 1985, Hoover died of an illness contracted during his spring moult.

The previous year, his vocalizations had been described in the columns of the Canadian Journal of Zoology. The sounds it makes “look a lot like a man with a Boston accent. He often appears to be inebriated, possibly due to his tendency to link sounds representing distinct human words.” write Katherine Ralls (Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC) and her colleagues.

“One Voice”

Hoover remains an almost unique case for his species, but he has swung it into the category of “learners”, those for whom the vocal register seems capable of plasticity. The vocalizations of sea calves continue to captivate bioacoustics specialists today. Evidenced by a study published on April 29 in the Journal of Experimental Biology, which explores the related issue of acoustic allometry. This term designates the fact that, in mammals, vocalizations generally reflect the size of the animal: the bigger it is, the lower its register, and vice versa. The ability to overcome this law can be explained by anatomical characteristics and by neural wiring that makes it possible to take advantage of the leeway offered by said anatomy.

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