From: Allison Winter, ENN
Published April 2, 2013 02:07 PM

Sea Lion Keeps the Beat

A California sea lion named Ronan is now being known as the first non-human mammal that can keep the beat while rocking out to music.


Scientists at the Long Marine Laboratory at the University of California, Santa Cruz have trained Ronan to bob her head in time with rhythmic sounds. Not only has she learned how to keep with the tempos, but she can transfer this skill to music she hasn't heard before.

Sea lions have been known to be particularly intelligent and trainable as they have starred in zoo and circus performances, and have even been trained for US Navy military operations. But teaching rhythm is a different ballgame, especially when not all of the human population have it.

Scientists believed musical ability was unique to humans until previous studies (and countless YouTube videos) demonstrate parrots and other birds reacting and moving to music. This led scientists to theorize specializations for vocal mimicry might be necessary for the ability to move in time with rhythm. However, Ronan, a non-mimic, proves otherwise.

Peter Cook, lead author of the study and graduate student in psychology at UC Santa Cruz explains, "Ronan's success poses a real problem for the theory that vocal mimicry is a necessary precondition for rhythmic entrainment." 

"The idea was that beat keeping is a fortuitous side effect of adaptations for vocal mimicry, which requires matching incoming auditory signals with outgoing vocal behavior," Cook said. "It's understandable why that theory was attractive. But the fact is our sea lion has gotten really good at keeping the beat. Our finding represents a cautionary note for an idea that was really starting to take hold in the field of comparative psychology."

"Given her success at keeping the beat with new rhythm tracks and songs following her initial training, it's possible that keeping the beat isn't that hard for her," Cook said. "She just had to learn what it was we wanted her to do."

Cook also noted that Ronan performs much better than birds at staying on the beat. Where in videos of head-bobbing parrots, they tend to fall off the beat. "They're good at finding the tempo in music, but don't seem to maintain the behavior as reliably as Ronan," he said.

Cook stated: "People have assumed that animals lack these abilities. In some cases, people just hadn't looked."

The study was published online yesterday in the Journal of Comparative Psychology.

For more information check out the UC Newsroom.

Seal image via Shutterstock. Copyright Eric Isselee.

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