Ronan, a seven-year-old California sea lion, became an Internet star three years ago for displaying a trait many people at American wedding receptions lack: rhythm.
She could accurately nod her head to the beat of a metronome, disco songs and even the Backstreet Boys, according to the scientists who work with her at the University of California at Santa Cruz. That made Ronan a very special animal — the only non-human mammal ever shown to possess the skill. Here’s a video:
Previously, it had taken a dancing cockatoo named Snowball to upend the long-held scientific notion that only people could respond to music. Researchers have since documented beat-keeping in chimpanzees, bonobos, parrots and parakeets called budgerigars.
Now Ronan has taken her skill to another level, and that’s taken scientists’ understanding of musicality further as well. Those who work with her have found that she can also switch easily from one beat to another, as you might do if the wedding DJ suddenly switched from ABBA to Adele. To test Ronan, they played click tracks and the sea lion’s favorite song — Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland” — at different speeds. Watch her here:
Ronan “showed remarkable ability to adapt quickly and accurately to synchronize her body motion,” write the authors of a new study on the sea lion, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience. “In most respects, Ronan’s beat-keeping performance was as precise and reliable as that observed in human studies.”
Peter Cook and Andrew Rouse, the California researchers who work with Ronan, think the finding may shed light on the biology of musicality. According to a press release on their study, they applied a complicated mathematical equation that has been used to describe human beat-keeping — it involves oscillating populations of neurons in auditory centers of the brain — and found that Ronan’s moves fit the model.
What’s also important is that other beat-keeping animals are what biologists call “vocal mimics,” which had led scientists to believe rhythm might depend on the neural circuits required for vocal flexibility. But Ronan’s skill suggests that beat-keeping may be more widespread, and that it’s embedded in the brain.
Yet more study is needed, the authors said. And that means Ronan probably has a lot more dancing days ahead of her.