Researchers at the University of California at Santa Cruz’s marine laboratory have been studying what appears to be the first sea lion that can move its body to the beat of a wide range of music, including oldies and pop hits.
In a study published this week in the American Psychological Association’s academic journal, “Journal of Comparative Psychology,” UC Santa Cruz psychology graduate student Peter Cook demonstrated that a non-human mammal can bob its head to the rhythm.
That mammal is Ronan, a female sea lion born in the wild in 2008 who was rescued from the San Luis Obispo area in 2009 and brought to the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito before she arrived in January 2010 at UC Santa Cruz’s Long Marine Laboratory.
Previous studies had shown that “rhythmic entrainment” — as synching movements to a beat is scientifically labeled — had been only seen in parrots and other birds that can mimic vocal noises.
“This is kind of a new frontier,” Cook said.
With Ronan in the Pinniped Cognition and Sensory Systems Laboratory, Cook and his assistant trained her to bob her head to a beat with simple tracks for about three months. After the training she was able to maintain the beat and then, perhaps more impressively, she showed an ability to keep time to new music.
Cook said extensive testing in many conditions showed repeatedly that Ronan’s head movements were not mimicry or a trained behavior.
Her scientist trainers said her favorite track appears to be Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland.”
Cook, who is working with UC Santa Cruz associate professor of psychology Margaret Wilson, hopes to uncover the implications of Ronan’s ability.
“We’re thinking about other animals you could do this with,” he said.
To further the study, more animals would need to be trained and tested to see their beat-keeping ability, he said.
Musical ability has long been associated with solely humans until parrots and similar birds showed, albeit in a limited way, they could mimic sounds and beats.
Two studies were spurred by a 2009 online YouTube video of a cockatoo that appears to be able to dance and move along to the beats in popular music.
“There has been some good work done on birds,” Cook said. “Some of that research is very solid.”
Now sea lions may show that complex vocal learning — as exhibited by birds and humans — is not necessary for the ability to move to the beat.
Cook contends that the brain mechanisms to keep the beat may be more widespread than humans and birds.
UC Santa Cruz spokesman Guy Lasnier said Ronan’s ability to move to the music was initially interpreted as an April Fools joke when news of the study was released on that day.
But in fact, the topic of different animals moving to the beat has been studied in the burgeoning psychological field for years, and Ronan has been training for months and observed for more than a year for her beat-keeping skills, Lasnier said.
(KTVU 2 San Francisco)