FEB 20, 2014 12:00 AM PST

California Sea Lion Challenges Assumptions By Keeping The Beat

We've all seen strange intersections of animals and music on the Internet, with everything from keyboard-playing cats to dogs that howl in ways that people desperately try to interpret as words. As fun (or annoying) as these may be, they are based on a simple training and reward system focused on that one particular trick. However, in the case of one of the more popular animal and music combinations on the Internet, there is more to the story.

You may have seen Ronan, a California sea lion that lives at UC-Santa Cruz's Long Marine Laboratory, on the Internet bobbing her head and keeping an impressively steady beat to Earth, Wind and Fire's "Boogie Wonderland"-and arguably doing a better job of it than Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack. That alone is a good trick, but Ronan has shown another capability. She can steadily bob her head in time with a rhythm that she has never been exposed to before.

This ability, known as rhythmic entrainment, comes natural to most humans (Rodney Dangerfield excluded), but is unknown within the animal kingdom except for parrots and similar birds that are capable of mimicking human voices. Scientists have always assumed that the ability for vocal mimicry is a required precondition for rhythmic entrainment in animals, but Ronan's abilities pose a challenge to that theory. Sea lions are not capable of vocal mimicry.

Peter Cook, formerly of the Psychology Department at UC-Santa Cruz and now with Emory University, presented his work with Ronan at the 2014 meeting of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) in Chicago. Ronan had been rescued from a nearby highway and was brought to the Pinniped Cognition and Sensory Systems Laboratory at UC-Santa Cruz. Cook realized that Ronan was highly intelligent, and he decided to use her to investigate the possibility of rhythmic entrainment.

Training began slowly, stating with hand signals, and then graduating to a single sound. Ronan was rewarded with a fish after each successful test. Eventually Ronan was able to complete at least 60 head bobs in time with various beats and rhythms. Once Ronan determined what Cook wanted her to do, she was able to adapt to different rhythms without much difficulty.

It's not hard to imagine humorous overextensions of this discovery-perhaps someday on the Internet we will see a penguin tap dance troupe, or a chorus line of wildebeests. But in reality, this poses interesting questions about the capabilities of animals. By assuming a vocal mimicry precondition, scientists had not bothered looking for rhythmic entrainment in many animals, so perhaps this capability is more widespread than expected. Are there other capabilities in animals that are being bypassed based on simple assumptions? It's certainly possible, and it will be interesting to see if this finding opens up new avenues of research in animal behavior and capability.

Meanwhile, Ronan is probably still hard at work at UC-Santa Cruz, learning new tunes, engaging in other research, and dining on fish. All in all, that's not a bad life-especially if you like to eat fish.
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