Understanding A Sea Lion's Surprising Ability To Dance To Music [VIDEO]

By Ajit Jha on February 16, 2014 6:27 PM EST

sea lion
Ronan, the sea lion that became an internet sensation for dancing to the Backstreet Boys, has caused researchers to ask many questions about animals' ability to respond to music. (Photo: Maltesen, CC BY 2.0)

Ronan is a California sea lion who became famous last year after video of her bobbing her head to music made it to the internet. Ronan can dance to different songs including Earth, Wind, & Fire's "Boogie Wonderland," and "Everybody" by the Backstreet Boys. Her uncanny ability got researchers wondering whether humans were the only ones who could keep up with rhythms and beats.

Her ability to bob her head to a rhythm led researchers to publish a paper describing her as the first non-human mammal to convincingly keep up with the beat, no matter how it changes. The paper was presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Chicago on Saturday by Peter Cook, a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University, who began working with Ronan when he was a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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Cook, who observed Ronan intensively, noted that Ronan has the ability to respond in time to wide-ranging auditory stimuli, including music with different tempos. "Along with other recent findings, this suggests that the neural mechanisms underpinning flexible beat keeping may be much more widely distributed across the animal kingdom than previously thought," Cook said in a press release .

Aside from humans, learning to move to the beat - called rhythmic entrainment - is a unique trait seen only in birds, like parrots, which have a talent for mimicry. Therefore, some researchers theorized that complex vocal learning is a pre-requisite 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," Cook said.

In 2009, two studies looking into rhythmic entrainment were inspired by Snowball, a sulfur-crested cockatoo, who danced to Backstreet Boys videos online. Researchers who looked for more dancing animal videos could not find anything beyond parrots, and their relatives, swaying to the beat. Sea lions, apparently, are an exception in that they not only perform vocal mimicry but they also have limited flexibility with respect to the sound they make. Ronan's ability to keep up with the beat "poses a real problem for the theory that vocal mimicry is a necessary precondition for rhythmic entrainment," Cook said.

It was Ronan's rapid learning ability that motivated them to study beat keeping. "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."

Ronan's case has already begun to challenge several unquestioned notions about animals. Many people believed, for instance, that musical ability was exclusive to humans. But musical ability may have foundations that are shared with other animals, Cook said. "People have assumed that animals lack these abilities. In some cases, people just hadn't looked."

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