Ronan is a now four-year-old sea lion who knows how — disputing long-held notions that only animals who can mimic human speech can do so — to rock to the beat. Found in 2009 on California’s Highway 1 in San Luis Obispo, she lives at the Pinniped Cognition & Sensory Systems Laboratory at the University of California, Santa Cruz’s Long Marine Laboratory.
Sea lions communicate with all sorts of vocalizations, from their signature bark to buzzing sounds, clicks and what sounds like a whinny (indeed, they produce all of these underwater). But they are not known to be able to imitate sounds vocally — to possess vocal mimicry skills like cockatoos and budgerigars.
Indeed, scientists who examined a good thousand videos of animals (including dogs, cats, chimpanzees, elephants and birds) moving while music was playing found that only parrots and one Asian elephant (who have been known to try to imitate human sounds) were “actually moving synchronously with the beat and responding correctly if the beat changed.” Scientists have thought that the ability to follow a beat relies on the same neural mechanisms as are needed for vocal mimicry.
Ronan is giving us reason to reconsider this assumption. A graduate student, Peter Cook, and other scientists has found that she can bob her head in time to music. Cockatoos like the famous dancing Snowball have been known to keep a beat (and then some). But Ronan’s ability to follow the rhythm in music is unexpected as sea lions have (so far) yet to be found to be able to mimic human vocalizations.
Cook first trained Ronan to bob her head to a simple sound that was repeated over and over, like that of a metronome. She was given a fish when she bobbed her head in sync. She has since shown she can do so to a range of different tunes, some quite complex, and can now do the same to music she is hearing for the first time.
As Cook and the other researchers write, “the capacity for entrainment of movement to rhythmic sounds does not depend on a capacity for vocal mimicry, and may be more widespread in the animal kingdom than previously hypothesized.” That is, just because an animal cannot precisely mimic human vocalizations does not mean that she or he does not sense the rhythms and patterns — the beat — in music. Could Ronan’s attentiveness to rhythmic stimuli arise from sea lions’ ability to communicate under water, where barks and other noises can not only be heard but sensed and felt?
Ronan was trained to bob her head to receive a fish. I’d be curious to get a better sense if she finds listening to music and moving in sync with it as pleasurable, the way humans (well, some!) enjoy dancing.
Cook’s and the other scientists are yet another reminder that animals are really listening to what’s going on around them; that sounds from music to human voices could very likely not just be a chaotic buzz to them, but sounds they are seeking to understand and make sense of.
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