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Sea lion boogies down, overturns theory (+video)

Ronan, a California sea lion with a knack for keeping a beat, challenges theories about the nature of rhythmic ability. 

One of our resident sea lions, Ronan, is the first non-human mammal shown able to find and keep the beat with musical stimuli. This challenges earlier evidence from humans and parrots suggesting that complex vocal mimicry is a necessary precondition for flexible rhythmic entrainment.
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If you're like most people, the last time you threw a dance party you invited only humans, cockatoos, parrots, and parakeets. 

Which makes perfect sense, because the only animals capable of keeping a beat, as far as anyone knew, were mimicking birds and (some) humans.

But new research suggests that for your next interspecies soirée, you might need to fill a kiddie pool and stock your fridge with herring, because it turns out that sea lions may also show a sense of rhythm. 

Researchers at the Pinniped Cognition & Sensory Systems Laboratory at the University of California, Santa Cruz's Long Marine Laboratory, trained Ronan, a 4-year-old California sea lion, to bob her head in time with music. It is the first time a nonhuman mammal has been observed keeping a beat.

Before Ronan danced her way onto the scene, animal behaviorists were beginning to agree that keeping a beat – "rhythmic entrainment" in science-speak – was in some way a byproduct of neural adaptations that allow vocal mimicry. Inspired by popular YouTube videos of Snowball, a sulfur-crested cockatoo getting down to the Backstreet Boys' "Everybody" and Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust," researchers conducted an extensive search of the video database to find that every example of beat keeping, as far as they could tell, was done either by mimicking birds or humans. (It's mostly humans, actually. And most aren't very good.)  

But Ronan changes all that. "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," said lead researcher Peter Cook, in a university press release.


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