FEB 20, 2014 12:00 AM PST

California Sea Lion Challenges Assumptions By Keeping The Beat

WRITTEN BY: Jen Ellis
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.
About the Author
You May Also Like
JUL 09, 2018
Plants & Animals
JUL 09, 2018
Here's Why Rats Are So Difficult to Get Rid of
Rats are everywhere, especially in large cities like New York where food scraps and opportunities can be found around every corner. But why are these roden...
AUG 12, 2018
Genetics & Genomics
AUG 12, 2018
Bringing Genetics Research to the Developing World
Researchers want to ensure that technology is distributed equitably, to benefit everyone....
AUG 13, 2018
Plants & Animals
AUG 13, 2018
Distressed Orca Refuses to Eat Despite Conservationists' Attempts to Help
Animal conservationists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently happened upon a distressed 3.5-year-old orca named J50 off...
AUG 23, 2018
Genetics & Genomics
AUG 23, 2018
Growing Plants That Don't Need as Much Water
Parts of our world already have to deal with periods of drought, and it may only get worse....
AUG 21, 2018
Plants & Animals
AUG 21, 2018
2018: An Unlucky Year for Manatees?
Concerned animal conservationists have taken the stage to warn about some somewhat unsettling news in the marine mammal world. As it would seem, there&rsqu...
SEP 10, 2018
Plants & Animals
SEP 10, 2018
The WWF is Outfitting Tanzanian Elephants with Satellite-Trackable Collars
Animal poachers frequently target elephants because their ivory tusks can rake in a significant profit on the black market. But contemporary technological ...
Loading Comments...