Sea Lion Keeps Beat to Music: Ronan Becomes First Non-human Mammal to do so

Ronan Sea Lion

A team from the University of California at Santa Cruz says Ronan, the Sea Lion, is the first non-human mammal to prove the ability to “keep the beat” with music. Prior to the study, keeping beat was only seen in humans and birds talented in vocal mimicry.

Researchers used a metronome and fresh fish to train Ronan to match movements to rhythm of music played over speakers in her concrete pen. Starting with simple rhythm tracks, a few months later, Ronan showed a remarkable ability to keep time to novel rhythmic tempos and music.

Scientists call it “rhythmic entrainment,” and aside from humans it was previously seen only in parrots and other birds with a talent for vocal mimicry.

“The fact that we showed Ronan could do it means that there’s a raw capability in sea lions,” lead researcher Peter Cook, a graduate student in psychology at UC-Santa Cruz, told NBC News.

“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.”

“Understanding the cognitive capabilities of animals requires carefully controlled, well-designed experiments,” said co-author Colleen Reichmuth of the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of California at Santa Cruz in a press release. “This study is particularly rigorous because it examines, step-by-step, the learning conditions that supported the emergence of this complex behavior.”

Ronan was born in the wild in 2008, but had to be rescued by the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito in 2009 after she was found on Highway 1 in San Luis Obispo County.

Ronan favorite songs to keep beat to are “Boogie Wonderland” by Earth, Wind and Fire, “Down on the Corner” by John Fogerty and “Everybody” by the Backstreet Boys.

Cook added that Ronan, who he trained for several months, stays on beat better than some birds.

Cook and his colleagues plan to find out if other species can be trained to keep beat to music.

Beat Keeping in a California Sea Lion (Ronan)

One of our resident sea lions, Ronan, is the first non-human mammal shown able to find and keep the beat with musical stimuli. This challenges earlier evidence from humans and parrots suggesting that complex vocal mimicry is a necessary precondition for flexible rhythmic entrainment.

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