Disco-Dancing Sea Lion Challenges Theories About Keeping the Beat

Ronan the rescued sea lion has researchers rethinking theories about "rhythmic entrainment," aka "grooving," after her introduction to Earth, Wind & Fire

By Jonathan Lloyd
|  Tuesday, Apr 2, 2013  |  Updated 1:48 PM PDT
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Ronan the sea lion prepares to groove.

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Ronan the sea lion was part of study involving algae and its impact on stranded marine animals -- but that was before she heard the disco sounds of Earth, Wind & Fire.

Ronan's disco dancing video, posted Sunday, had nearly 50,000 views by Tuesday morning -- a significant number for a research study, most of which don't star a grooving sea lion. But researchers at UC-Santa Cruz say it's more than a cute trick -- there's science behind the sea lion's moves (scroll down to view video) that challenges theories about whether animals have a sense for rhythm.

"We trained Ronan to move her head in time with rhythmic sounds," said Peter Cook, a member of the UC-Santa Cruz Psychology Deparment. "Outside of humans, this ability had been seen previously only in parrots and some related birds."

Consider the case of Snowball the dancing cockatoo whose head moved in time to the Backstreet Boys, generating 5.3 million views on YouTube. Researchers looked for more examples of beat keeping animals and discovered that almost all -- at least those with videos posted online -- involved parrots and their relatives.

The many things that make Ronan different from parrots include the fact that sea lions, unlike parrots, do not simply mimic behaviors or sounds. After researchers at the UC Santa Cruz Pinniped Cognition and Sensory Systems Laboratory trained Ronan to move her head to the beat, she displayed the ability to transfer what she learned to songs that she had not heard before -- like the way some, but not all, humans can dance to the beats of different music at a nightclub.

"Ronan's success poses a real problem for the theory that vocal mimicry is a necessary precondition for rhythmic entrainment," Cook said. "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. It's understandable why that theory was attractive. But the fact is our sea lion has gotten really good at keeping the beat."

The rhythm cognition study conducted at UC Santa Cruz was actually a side project that began after Ronan -- who was rescued by the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito in 2009 -- proved to be a quick learner. She originally was part of study involving algae found on the California coast that is believed to cause mass standings of sea lions.

"From my first interactions with her, it was clear that Ronan was a particularly bright sea lion," Cook said. "Everybody in the animal cognition world, including me, was intrigued by the dancing bird studies, but I remember thinking that no one had attempted a strong effort to show beat keeping in an animal other than a parrot. I figured training a mammal to move in time to music would be hard, but Ronan seemed like an ideal subject."

The project started with Ronan bobbing her head to a beat. After a few months, she was able to consistently keep the beat.

Cook started mixing in Earth, Wind & Fire's disco classic "Boogie Wonderland." See the video below to watch Ronan keep the beat, something she does with more consistency than parrots, who seem to frequently fall off the beat, Cook said.

"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 and researchers are still working out the implications of the new findings, characterizing them for now as simply a challenge to the theories about rhythmic ability.

"Human musical ability may in fact have foundations that are shared with animals," Cook said. "People have assumed that animals lack these abilities. In some cases, people just hadn't looked."

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