Scientists at the University of California, Santa Cruz have trained a sea lion to move in time to music, particularly Earth Wind & Fire's "Boogie Wonderland."
Up to now, only birds have shown the capability to dance in rhythm, according to scientist Peter Cook whose study of the dancing of a female sea lion named Ronan was published April 1 in the Journal of Comparative Psychology.
Scientists say that only humans and birds with a capacity for vocal mimicry, such as parrots, have shown "rhythmic entrainment"—the ability to move to the beat.
"Ronan's success poses a real problem for the theory that vocal mimicry is a necessary precondition for rhythmic entrainment," Cook said in a press release.
"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."
According to the UCSC release: Ronan was born in the wild in 2008 and rescued by the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito in 2009 after she was found on Highway 1 in San Luis Obispo County. It was her third stranding incident, and she didn't seem to be making it in the wild. She came to Long Marine Lab in January 2010 and joined the Pinniped Cognition and Sensory Systems Laboratory directed by one of Cook's advisers at UCSC, animal behaviorist Colleen Reichmuth.
"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."
Cook said Ronan performs much better than the birds at staying on the beat.
"In the videos, Alex [an African gray parrot] and Snowball fall off the beat a lot. They’re good at finding the tempo in music, but don’t seem to maintain the behavior as reliably as Ronan. She stays right on the beat," he said.
"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."
Editor's note: This article originally was published by Santa Cruz Patch in California.