Head-Banging Sea Lion Intrigues Scientists

UC Santa Cruz

Ronan, the beat-keeping sea lion, and researcher Peter Cook.

All humans can dance -- some better than others -- and so do some birds, most famously, Snowball, a cockatoo and Backstreet Boys fan.

Most scientists thought it stopped there, until Ronan, the head-bobbing sea lion came along.

"She really only has one move, but she does it very enthusiastically," says Peter Cook, a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz and first author of a study published Monday in the Journal of Comparative Psychology.

Over the course of several months, Cook used a metronome and fresh fish to train Ronan to match her movements to the ryhthm of music played over speakers in her concrete pen.

Her skill surprised scientists who had believed that only animals calapble of vocal mimicry, like parrots, could keep a beat. Before Ronan, scientists had surmised that rhythm might be a side-effect of the human ability to use language.

Sea lions aren't known to be capable of vocal mimicry, but according to Cook, they can dance.

Cook says Ronan's ability to nod to the beat -- a kind of low-key head-banging that you really have to see on video -- suggests that rhythmic movement may be a skill independent of language or vocal mimicry. It suggests there could be other reasons that animals may have evolved the ability to keep a beat.

"Say you're a bunch of birds flying together and it reduces drag if your wings all move in synch," says Cook, "or if you're a cheetah trying to bring down a gazelle and maybe match your gait to its gait. The more you think about it, the more potential benefits there are for basic types of synchronization in nature."

In Ronan's case, not just any tune will do. AC/DC's "Back in Black" triggered what Cook characterized as the sea-lion equivalent of an eye roll. It was, says Cook, "kind of like 'Oh god, why am I doing this?"

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