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Dancing Sea Lion Challenges the Idea that Animals can't Keep a Beat [Video]

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Apr 02, 2013 06:33 AM EDT
Sea Lion
Graduate student Peter Cook trained Ronan, a California sea lion, to bob her head in time with a rhythm. (Photo : C. Reichmuth/ University of California, Santa Cruz.)

Ronan, a sea lion, has now become the first non-human mammal who can keep up with a beat. The ability to keep a track of beat was previously found only in birds like parrots that can mimic the human voice.

Scientists from University of California, Santa Cruz, have taught Ronan to bob her head according to a rhythm.

What makes Ronan's ability special is that sea lions don't make a lot of sounds and the capacity for keeping the beat requires the knowledge of many different sounds.

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"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. It's understandable why that theory was attractive. But the fact is our sea lion has gotten really good at keeping the beat. Our finding represents a cautionary note for an idea that was really starting to take hold in the field of comparative psychology," said Peter Cook, a graduate student in psychology at UC Santa Cruz and first author of the study.

It took researchers a few months to train Ronan to bob her head to beats. Now, she can keep a track of novel rhythm and music, and her favorite song is Earth Wind & Fire's "Boogie Wonderland."

                              

The ability to understand complex rhythms in music was previously thought to be a unique human trait. Now, studies on certain birds (a cockatoo called Snowball dancing to the Backstreet Boys) and this latest study on a sea lion has shown that even birds and animals can keep a track of beats.

Cook is working with Margaret Wilson, an associate professor of psychology at UC Santa Cruz., who says that the brain mechanisms required to understand beats may be present in many animals.

"Human musical ability may in fact have foundations that are shared with animals. People have assumed that animals lack these abilities. In some cases, people just hadn't looked," Cook said in a news release.

The study is published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology.

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