Groovy! Dancing Sea Lion Keeps a Beat

Graduate student Peter Cook trained Ronan, a California sea lion, to bob her head in time with a rhythm. (Image credit: C. Reichmuth)

Though dancing may come naturally to (some) humans, it doesn't quite have a parallel in the animal kingdom. Now, a California sea lion named Ronan may be the first non-human mammal to bop to the rhythm of a song.

After being trained to bob her head to some simple tracks, Ronan showed she could pick up the beat of songs she hadn't heard before, like the Backstreet Boys' "Everybody" and Earth Wind & Fire's "Boogie Wonderland." Ronan's remarkable ability challenges the assumption that only animals with a capacity for complex vocal learning — such as humans and some birds — can keep a beat.

The 4-year-old sea lion was rescued after she was found on Highway 1 in 2009 in her third stranding incident. She joined the Pinniped Cognition and Sensory Systems Laboratory at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2010, where Peter Cook, a graduate student in psychology, was inspired to test Ronan's beat-keeping skills, because she was a "particularly bright" subject.

"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," Cook said in a statement. "I figured training a mammal to move in time to music would be hard, but Ronan seemed like an ideal subject."

Alex, the famous African grey parrot, and Snowball, a sulfur-crested cockatoo can also bob their heads, tap their feet and sway along with human music, found a 2009 study. Researchers believed the birds' dancing was tied to their capacity for vocal mimicry, which, like dance, requires one to listen to a sound carefully while simultaneously controlling output. Sea lions are not known to be capable of vocal mimicry and their range of sounds is limited.

For the study, Cook and his colleagues trained Ronan to bob her head to a beat of simple rhythms. It took her a few months to get the hang of it, but Ronan eventually showed that she could apply her training to more complex tempos and music, synchronizing her movements to new songs, the researchers said.

The results suggest brain mechanisms that underlie dancing and beat-keeping could be more common among animals than previously thought.

"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."

The research was detailed Monday (April 1) in the Journal of Comparative Psychology.

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Megan Gannon
Live Science Contributor
Megan has been writing for Live Science and since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.