Researchers at the University of California in Santa Cruz have successfully trained a sea lion to bob its head in time to music, in a study that may change our understanding of how rhythm is acquired. Previously, report the team in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, it was thought that only animals capable of vocal mimicry — such as cockatoos and budgerigars — could be taught rhythm.
However, a sea lion named Ronan has been able to perform to the team's three criteria: "a behavioral response that does not reproduce the stimulus; performance transfer to a range of novel tempos; and entrainment to complex, musical stimuli." Once Ronan had got the hang of things, she was able to learn new songs at different speeds with ease, as you'll see in the video below featuring a performance of "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)." Ronan is said to be the first non-human mammal that can keep a beat.
According to a UCSC press release, the belief that rhythmic entrainment went hand in hand with vocal mimicry was supported by two studies inspired by a popular YouTube video of a cockatoo called Snowball dancing to the Backstreet Boys. "The fact is our sea lion has gotten really good at keeping the beat," said Peter Cook, who has led the study since publishing an abstract last year. "Our finding represents a cautionary note for an idea that was really starting to take hold in the field of comparative psychology." And Ronan has displayed somewhat more refined taste than Snowball, too — her favorite song is "Boogie Wonderland" by Earth, Wind & Fire.