Researchers have made a new discovery in the field of adorable dancing animals. In a University of California Santa Cruz study, Ronan the California sea lion has learned to bob her head in rhythm to several songs, a capability once believed to be only possessed by humans and some birds.
According to an article published on the University of California Santa Cruz’s Newscenter, Ronan’s favorite song is currently Earth Wind & Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland,” but it took Ph.D. student Peter Cook and his colleagues a few months to show her how to boogie.
Cook became interested in studies and presentations that featured birds engaged in what scientists call “rhythmic entrainment,” or simply keeping rhythmic beat.
“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,” Cook told the Newscenter. “It’s understandable why that theory was attractive. But the fact is our sea lion has gotten really good at keeping the beat.”
Ronan was a rescued sea lion that Cook had used as a control in other studies. He said Ronan showed higher than average intelligence, so Cook decided to pursue the rhythmic entrainment experiment with her, with the results recently published to the Journal of Comparative Psychology.
“From my first interactions with her, it was clear that Ronan was a particularly bright sea lion,” Cook said. “I figured training a mammal to move in time to music would be hard, but Ronan seemed like an ideal subject.”
Her training began with a simple metronome and fish treats as rewards, but Ronan was eventually able to bob her head in synchronization with songs by the Backstreet Boys and Earth Wind & Fire.
Cook also explained why Ronan’s behavior will likely make for more than just another cute video.
“Ronan’s success poses a real problem for the theory that vocal mimicry is a necessary precondition for rhythmic entrainment,” he said. “Human musical ability may in fact have foundations that are shared with animals.”
In fact, from what they can tell, Ronan actually shows stronger rhythm than most birds.
“[The birds I've seen] fall off the beat a lot. They’re good at finding the tempo in music, but don’t seem to maintain the behavior as reliably as Ronan. She stays right on the beat,” Cook said.
Of course, you can also decide who you think is better. Up top we’ve got a video of Ronan and below a video of Snowball the Cockatoo. The beat is on.