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Sea lion dancing to 'Boogie' beat sheds light on rhythm in brain [video]

April 02, 2013|By Amina Khan
  • Ronan the California sea lion bobbed her head to the beats of the Backstreet Boys and Earth, Wind & Fire, a new study by UC Santa Cruz researchers shows.
Ronan the California sea lion bobbed her head to the beats of the Backstreet… (American Psychological…)

Sea lions can’t sing along to music, but they might just dance to the beat. Researchers at UC Santa Cruz have trained Ronan the California sea lion to bob along to a variety of musical genres, making her the first mammal (besides humans) to respond to rhythm.

The findings, described in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, may help shed light on the origins of the brain’s ability to sync sound and movement.   

Other animals have been shown to get their boogie on, but they’re typically birds like cockatoos and parrots, well versed in vocal mimicry. Snowball the cockatoo would kick like a can-can dancer when listening to the Backstreet Boys’ 1997 pop hit "Everybody."

The researchers wondered whether an animal without such vocal abilities could also pull off the same trick. Ronan, a rescued wild sea lion, seemed bright enough to give it a try.

The team taught the sea lion to bob along to 1969’s "Down on the Corner" by Creedence Clearwater Revival, the 1979 single "Boogie Wonderland" by Earth, Wind & Fire – and yes, the Backstreet Boys' "Everybody," apparently quite popular in the animal kingdom.

Rewarded with fish, Ronan bobbed along to each different tempo. To make sure she was dancing to an internalized, learned rhythm and not just blindly following the sound, they used a metronome that would miss beats – and they found that Ronan kept grooving, even without a reliable conductor.

But from Snowball to Ronan, the critters studied thus far seem to need to be trained to follow a rhythm, the authors noted – it doesn’t seem to arise spontaneously.

"The animals shown capable of entrainment have either received explicit training as in our study … or have long histories of human interaction that could have allowed for incidental social reinforcement of rhythmic behavior," they write.

Then again, it’s possible that humans also learn to pick up beats through social reinforcement, the authors point out, so perhaps spontaneity isn’t as important as thought.

And even though sea lions don't talk now, they added, “it is of course possible that future studies may reveal that sea lions do possess the capacity for some degree of complex vocal learning.”

They may have a point, if Noc the chatty beluga whale is any indication. 

Follow me on Twitter @aminawrite.

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