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Beat-keeping sea lion shows surprising rhythmic ability
Date:2/15/2014

Ronan, a California sea lion at Long Marine Laboratory at the University of California, Santa Cruz, became an Internet sensation last year when UCSC scientists published a paper describing her ability to bob her head in time with rhythmic sounds and music in a variety of tempos (see video).

Ronan is the first non-human mammal convincingly shown to be able to keep the beat. Her range and versatility in matching different beats is impressive, according to Peter Cook, who began working with Ronan as a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz. Cook, now a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University, will present his research on Ronan's beat-keeping ability at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Chicago on February 15, in a session devoted to "Rhythmic entrainment in non-human animals."

Cook noted that Ronan can move in time to a wide range of rhythmic auditory stimuli with different tempos, including music. "Along with other recent findings, this suggests that the neural mechanisms underpinning flexible beat keeping may be much more widely distributed across the animal kingdom than previously thought," Cook said.

Aside from humans, rhythmic entrainment had previously been seen only in parrots and other birds with a talent for vocal mimicry. This led some researchers to theorize that beat keeping requires a capacity for complex vocal learning. "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 said.

But sea lions are not known to do vocal mimicry and have limited flexibility in the sounds they make. "Ronan's success poses a real problem for the theory that vocal mimicry is a necessary precondition for rhythmic entrainment," Cook said.

Born in the wild in 2008, Ronan was rescued by the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito in 2009 after she was found on Hi
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Contact: Tim Stephens
stephens@ucsc.edu
831-459-2495
University of California - Santa Cruz
Source:Eurekalert

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