The theory has long been that non-human mammals simply can’t keep the beat. In fact, it was increasingly suggested that mammals needed the ability for vocal mimicry before even beginning to have a sense of musical rhythm – apparently highlighted by the abilities of parrots and other birds. However, a sea lion called Ronan has overturned all that. She has proved that she can be trained to bob her head to the rhythm of songs familiar to her, yet he is able to do all that is without being able to mimic voices because sea lions only have very limited vocal powers.
Her trainers are researchers from the University of California at Santa Cruz, where Ronan has been living since she was rescued after being stranded. Researchers noticed that she was particularly bright and decided to see if she could be trained to react to rhythm. The research culminated in a study, which was published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology on 1st April 2013. As the lead author, Peter Cook, explained:
“Ronan’s success poses a real problem for the theory that vocal mimicry is a necessary precondition for rhythmic entrainment. 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 behaviour…Our finding represents a cautionary note for an idea that was really starting to take hold in the field of comparative psychology."”
The theory of rhythmic entrainment, or the ability to train mammals to keep the beat, was previously associated only with birds, hence the suggestion that vocal mimicry was a prerequisite. This was tentatively concluded from studies that took place in 2009 and were largely inspired by a cockatoo. The cockatoo, called Snowball, became an Internet sensation when she was filmed dancing to a Backstreet Boys track. The UC Santa Cruz academics did more research and discovered that nearly all the Internet clips of non-humans reacting to music were indeed birds.
To try to prove that mammals of the non-feathered variety could respond to rhythm, Ronan was initially trained with fish to bob along to particular songs, including ‘Boogie Wonderland’ by Earth, Wind and Fire. To ensure that she wasn’t just blindly following the music, but was actually reacting to her own internal rhythm, the researchers used a metronome that would sometimes miss beats. That still didn’t stop Ronan in her tracks; she still continued to bob along.
The UC Santa Cruz researchers are quick to point out that at the moment, any beat-keeping amongst mammals has proved to be learned behaviour, rather than anything spontaneous. Nevertheless, it is always exciting to find evidence that counteracts previously believed theories. Maybe other mammals will follow suit. And although sea lions don’t seem to have the capacity to communicate with speech at the moment, the researchers believe that more studies could show they are capable of some form of vocal communication.