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Sea Lion Bops to the Beat, Challenging Popular Rhythm Theory

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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ronan the sea lion

Ronan, a California sea lion, can bob her head to the beat of Boogie Wonderland and other songs. Image: C. Reichmuth

Remember Snowball, the cockatoo who won the internet with his dancing skills? Well, now there’s a new animal keeping the beat alive. Meet Ronan, the California sea lion who bops her head in time to Boogie Wonderland and other tunes (see video below). Few species apart from humans have demonstrated a sense of rhythm, and the most convincing cases were all parrots and their relatives—animals with a talent for vocal mimicry. Scientists thus theorized that beat-keeping is linked to a capacity for complex vocal learning. But Ronan challenges this idea because sea lions are not vocal mimics. Peter Cook, a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and his colleagues trained Ronan to bob her head to the beat of simple rhythm tracks, and once she mastered the skill, she was able to keep time with new songs with different tempos. “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.” A report detailing Ronan’s ability is being published this week in the Journal of Comparative Psychology.

Kate Wong About the Author: Kate Wong is an editor and writer at Scientific American covering paleontology, archaeology and life sciences. Follow on Twitter @katewong.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. pacer 8:27 pm 04/1/2013

    Anyone that watched television variety shows (Ed Sullivan, etc) would have seen any number of seals bobbing their heads to music. Some would even play a musical instrument. Of course the playing was all done with cues from the trainer. But the head bobbing was in sync with the music.

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  2. 2. TaffyAkemann 10:57 pm 04/1/2013

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  3. 3. timbosta 6:38 am 04/2/2013

    Firstly, I would like to know why your mediator doesn’t delete posts like the second one above. It’s Spam! Delete it!
    But in reference to the article, I’d be very much interested in the degree to which the Sea Lion can pick up on more sophisticated rhythms… the sea lion was trained to respond to a metronome for food, and has made the intellectual connection between the reward and sonic variations on the metronome, so it’s pretty obviously understood that there is a (for it) a cultural imperative to respond. For me this is a rather underwhelming phenomenon; so they are aware of simple rhythmic time measurement..hmm, I’d think it would be more interesting to take it further, and see exactly what degree of complexity the animal can be bothered to respond to….

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  4. 4. jtdwyer 7:28 am 04/2/2013

    I like like to know why a supposed scientist (grad student) would conclude, based on this evidence of one trained sea lion, that “… it may be that rhythmic ability is much more widespread in the animal kingdom than previously thought.”

    I agree with pacer that today’s students can be thankful that they have more entertainment options and do not have to watch trained seals, parrots, dogs, and ants on TV variety shows, but the evidence of one trained seal provided in this study hardly supports an general conclusion about the animal kingdom…

    IMO psychology and sociology students should be required to take extensive training in statistical evaluation methods since they seem to so commonly misapply them.

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  5. 5. jerryhamilt@yahoo.com 9:15 am 04/2/2013

    When they start doing it without training, then I will be impressed.

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  6. 6. juliokes 2:23 am 04/4/2013

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  7. 7. thomps95 6:19 am 05/26/2013

    jtdwyer in response to your skeptical comments – I read the original publication that was the basis for the news story, and I found the research rigorous. The PhD student was one of four scientists involved and the team applied a number of powerful statistical methods to their data. It also isn’t trivial to demonstrate the capacity of this species to synchronize their own movements to an external sound. I’d urge you to read the article, which can be found here:

    http://pinnipedlab.ucsc.edu/publications/pub_155_2013.pdf

    Link to this

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