A Sea Lion in Boogie Wonderland

Lion de mer Amnéville 01Back in June of 2010, my colleague and fellow blogger, Isobel, wrote a post on “Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo, YouTube and Scientific Discovery.” It featured a popular YouTube video of Snowball the sulfur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita) dancing to the Backstreet Boys. Besides being adorable, and the kind of video you can’t watch without getting a big dumb grin on your face, it was notable because Snowball was ably exhibiting a behavior previously thought unique to humans: the ability to keep, and move in time with, a musical beat.

Well, it’s time to move (groove?) on over, Snowball, and make room for a new beat-keeping star. Ronan’s in town.

Ronan is a California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) at the University of California Santa Cruz’s Long Marine Laboratory. Through research and guided training, Ronan has proved herself the first known non-human mammal with the ability to, as documented in this paper from the Journal of Comparative Psychology, “entrain motor activity to a rhythmic auditory stimulus.” That’s “boogie down” for all us lay people.

Peter Cook, a graduate student in psychology at UCSC, and Andrew Rouse, a researcher at the Pinniped Cognition and Sensory Systems Lab, started Ronan off by teaching her to bob her head to a simple repeating sound, like a metronome (she was rewarded handsomely with fish for her successes). Once she had mastered that, the researchers found, without further training, she started keeping a beat under other complex and previously unfamiliar musical stimuli all on her own.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6yS6qU_w3JQ]

This research is notable because, as supported by Snowball’s example, the capacity for vocal mimicry was previously thought a necessary precondition for boogieing down to a little Earth, Wind & Fire or Backstreet Boys*. As Cook notes in the video, Ronan is a sea lion, and is definitely not a vocal mimic, which challenges that theory and opens the door to the possibility that rhythmic ability may be much more widespread in the animal kingdom than previously thought. The paper also offers that the methods developed for this particular study were both novel and useful, and therefore may be of value for subsequent comparative studies of sensory-motor synchronization.

I have to admit, it kind of makes me want to set up a hidden camera and a little remote speaker in the forest and find out if a bear or a raccoon or a deer can do The Hustle at a level equal to, or possibly exceeding, most attendees of every wedding I’ve ever attended. My guess is…probably.

* Apparently a favorite with both Snowball and Ronan. You have to wonder, don’t you, if Denniz PoP and Max Martin, when they wrote “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back),”  had ANY earthly idea how formative their song would be in non-human beat perception and synchronization research?

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Caroline Sober

Senior Software Developer at Promega Corporation
Caroline is a senior software developer at Promega. She’s not a scientist, so if you hear her talking about DNA purification or pipetting or current issues in bioprivacy, she’s totally faking it and you should tell her to hush. She is, however, passionate about building useful software, the interactions between people and technology in general, and how social media is changing the conversation between companies and customers. She lives in Madison with her husband, daughter, and 110-pound dog.

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