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How a Disco-Loving Sea Lion Learned to Headbang

She is the first non-human mammal to be found to be able to keep a beat. Her favorite song is Earth Wind & Fire's "Boogie Wonderland."

Meet Ronan, a wild-born sea lion with some serious rhythm. She is the first non-human mammal to be found to be able to keep a beat. Her favorite song is Earth Wind & Fire's "Boogie Wonderland."

Like so many aspiring musicians, Ronan propelled herself to California with all she had; in 2009, she was found on Highway 1 in San Luis Obispo County. She would've hitchhiked but she had no thumbs. Fortunately, she was rescued by Sausilito's Marine Mammal Center. In 2010 she was moved to the Long Marine Lab in at UC Santa Cruz, where she joined the Pinniped Cognition and Sensory Systems Laboratory, directed by animal behaviorist Dr. Colleen Reichmuth, who has overseen many fascinating studies relating to marine animals' underwater hearing and communication.


Birds have been known to be able to keep a beat. Alex, the African Grey belonging to renowned animal researcher Irene Pepperberg, also got down at his MIT lab home.

And then there's Snowball the Cockatoo, who gained such Internet fame for his abilities that his name was Trademarked.

Inspired by the birds, Reichmuth's advisee Peter Cook and research technician Andrew Rouse set out to see if they could get Ronan to do the same.

They started by rewarding her for bopping her head to a couple beats of a metronome. This was done using the same "marker" system -- a "conditioned reinforcer," in behaviorism nerd speak. This is like the clicker we use with dogs to indicate that they've given a correct response and that a reward is coming. It's more efficient then trying to give the animal a reward the very second he or she does the correct thing. At about 1:07, and again at 2:01, you can hear a little beep noise, which is basically telling Ronan, "Hey sista, you've got some sweet moves on the dance floor! I'd buy you a drink but I think you'd prefer a herring."

Or, something like that. Once she got the hang of the metronome, Cook says that she "was able to find and keep the beat in complex stimuli, including music." Over the course of 16 months of training, she was found to be able to beat her head to many different songs, played at different tempos. She also likes the Backstreet Boys. (I don't know how she feels about Seal.) Previously, the only non-human mammal who has ever been known to keep a beat is Animal.

Up until now, it had been thought that vocal mimicry was a precondition to having rhythmic ability. "Given her success at keeping the beat with new rhythm tracks and songs following her initial training, it's possible that keeping the beat isn't that hard for her," Cook told the University of Santa Cruz's NewsCenter site. "She just had to learn what it was we wanted her to do." According to the study, which was published yesterday in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, Ronan's ability suggests that "the ability to learn beat-matching is not restricted to those species with a particular cognitive ability such as complex vocal learning or mimicry, and thus may be widespread in the animal kingdom."

Hakuna matata.

Anna Jane Grossman edits TheDogs, a blog about animal behavior, and is the co-owner of School For The Dogs in Manhattan.