New Discovery in Beat Recognition

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Ronan the sea lion gained internet fame for her ability to follow a beat. Photo courtesy of brendan wakefield, Pinnipedlab.ucsc.edu NMFS Permit 14535
Ronan the sea lion gained internet fame for her ability to follow a beat. Photo courtesy of brendan wakefield, Pinnipedlab.ucsc.edu NMFS Permit 14535

Everyone moves to the beat of their own drum. For Ronan the sea lion, this beat includes the Backstreet Boys.

Ronan, who currently resides at the Pinniped Cognition and Sensory Systems Laboratory at the Long Marine Laboratory, can nod her head to the beat of a song. This contests scientists’ previous conception that only humans and birds have rhythmic capabilities, said Peter Cook, a graduate psychology student at UC Santa Cruz who works with Ronan.

“For a long time people thought that only humans can move to a beat and dance,” said Andrew Rouse, Cook’s partner in the study and a graduate of UCSC’s biology program, “Within the last five years we have seen that this is not true … we just haven’t asked the question in the right way.”

Ronan’s dance moves have gone viral — a video of Ronan dancing, recorded by the Pinniped Laboratory, has reached over 1 million views on YouTube.

The paper on the study, written by Cook, Rouse, Margaret Wilson and Colleen Reichmuth, was published online in the Journal of Comparative Psychology at the beginning of April. It details the experiments Ronan participated from April to August of 2012. The results primarily focus on the number of Ronan’s head bobs in direct correlation with the different complex beats and tempos in the music. The authors conclude that these results may go against the theory of vocal mimicry, which suggests that animals capable of repeating spoken phrases also possess beat keeping abilities.

“There was a theory that only animals who were vocally flexible could do it,” Rouse said, “but no one had actually tested an animal that wasn’t vocally flexible.”

Cook and Rouse introduced Ronan to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Down on the Corner,” a classic American folk song. Ronan didn’t take to this song, Cook said, instead turning her ears to the pop genre. She became a particular fan of the Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody,” to which she dances in the YouTube video.

Cook said the three month process of attuning Ronan to the music started as a fun side project but quickly grew into something much more noteworthy than just another cute animal video. Ronan was the perfect candidate for this study, Cook said, because of her young and extremely enthusiastic energy, her attentiveness and willingness to participate.

Ronan came to the Long Marine Lab after she was found in the wild, unable to survive on her own. Ronan was released three times into the ocean but returned each time in poor health, said Colleen Reichmuth, animal behaviorist and head of the Pinniped Laboratory. After the third time, the Pinniped Lab chose to adopt Ronan rather than send her to a zoo or any other form of captivity.

“We’ve felt really fortunate that Ronan has joined our team,” Reichmuth said.

Peter Cook works with Ronan the sea lion on some basic husbandry behaviors that are used in daily health examinations and in training experimental research behaviors. Photo courtesy of brendan wakefield, Pinnipedlab.ucsc.edu NMFS Permit 14535
Peter Cook works with Ronan the sea lion on some basic husbandry behaviors that are used in daily health examinations and in training experimental research behaviors. Photo courtesy of brendan wakefield, Pinnipedlab.ucsc.edu NMFS Permit 14535

Rouse said they wanted to compare Ronan’s dance moves to Snowball the dancing cockatoo, another animal with dancing abilities to have gained popularity on the web. Unlike humans, birds such as Snowball were formerly believed to be able to keep a beat due to their vocal mimicry skills. Ronan, a sea lion with no vocal mimicry skills, suggests otherwise.

Cook said vocal mimicry may aid the spontaneity of the process, yet enough training and time may possibly produce similar results. As a sea lion, Ronan already possesses a natural ease of head movement, so bobbing and moving afforded little difficulty. After she found the beat, she just kept getting better, Cook said.

Rouse said that Ronan is a prime example of his ever-evolving understanding of animals, which constantly challenges what we know as a standard normative.

“A large part of it is that people tend to underestimate what animals can do,” Rouse said.

There remains a great deal of unknown in Ronan’s rhythmic capabilities, but these questions and inquiries drive the scientists to do more research, Rouse said. He hopes to expand Ronan’s ability to deal with more complex beats and, in light of her partiality to move to the pop genre, look further into her music preference.

“We’re discussing maybe looking how she may do with a complex form, or not done in standard time,” Rouse said.

Ronan’s ability was something thought to be impossible, Rouse said, and not only does this change the way we view rhythmic capabilities in sea lions, but animals such as dogs and horses as well. With training specific to their style of learning, Rouse said that other animals may be able to pick up a beat just as Ronan had.

Cook and Rouse both said that they look forward to training Ronan further to expand her rhythmic capabilities.

Ronan the sea lion and Peter Cook worked on attuning to music for three months. Photo courtesy of brendan wakefield, Pinnipedlab.ucsc.edu NMFS Permit 14535
Ronan the sea lion and Peter Cook worked on attuning to music for three months. Photo courtesy of brendan wakefield, Pinnipedlab.ucsc.edu NMFS Permit 14535

“Can [sea lions] do jazz?” Cook said, “A lot of humans can’t even do that.”