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Sea Lion Bops to the Beat, Challenging Popular Rhythm Theory


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.

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

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