A female California sea lion named Ronan is now the first non-human mammal that has shown the rhythmic ability to keep a beat.
As Peter Cook, a psychology graduate student who has been working with Ronan at UC Santa Cruz's Long Marine Laboratory, says in the video, rhythmic ability has only been seen so far in humans, and in parrots and other birds related to them. According to Cook, it was thought that something called 'vocal mimicry' — the ability to repeat back sounds that are heard — was needed for beat-keeping.
"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," he said in a UC Santa Cruz news release. "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."
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Sea lions are not known for their vocal-mimicry ability, and, in fact, their own 'vocabulary' is fairly limited, so Ronan's beat-keeping challenges the vocal-mimicry idea.
Researchers first started looking into beat-keeping in the animal kingdom when they saw videos of birds dancing to music, like this one:
Since they couldn't find any evidence of other animals showing this behaviour, the idea took root that it was the birds' vocal-mimicry ability that could be the reason for it. Cook decided to see if other animals could do it too.
"From my first interactions with her, it was clear that Ronan was a particularly bright sea lion," Cook said in the article . "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."
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Ronan first learned to follow the beat of a simple repeating noise, and once she picked up on it, she quickly graduated up to music, and as the video shows, she can follow the beat remarkably well.
"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."
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