Sea Lions Can Keep A Beat

Dancing animals are big on the internet, but what you may not know is that they're also important for science. Although most flamenco-dancing chihuahuas and strutting chickens only look like they have rhythm, there are a few animals that can actually keep a beat—and scientists are using that to uncover the roots of our own toe-tapping tendencies.

Dancing Mammals (And Birds, Too)

According to a 2016 study in Frontiers in Neuroscience, "the most reliable non-human beatkeeper to date" is a California sea lion named Ronan, who is known to bob in time along with music played by her trainers. She's not the first non-human to demonstrate a sense of rhythm: a cockatoo named Snowball has proven what scientists call "rhythmic entrainment to music," as have several Asian elephants and a chimpanzee. Scientists once believed that beat-keeping was tied to vocal mimicry, since to copy another animal's call you need to match not only sound, but timing too. But because chimps and sea lions aren't thought to be "vocal learners," their unique abilities put that theory into question.

What Animal Beat-Keeping Says About Us

So if the ability to keep a beat isn't necessarily related to vocal mimicry, what causes it? It could be that it goes back way, way further in our evolutionary history than the advent of speech. In that Frontiers of Neuroscience study of Ronan the sea lion, the researchers suggest that the mechanism behind beat-keeping is something much more basic: the brain's motor neurons fire in time with the beat. That's what's known as the "neural resonance theory" of music, and if that's what's behind Ronan's dance moves, it could mean big things about the abilities of many animals—including humans—to keep a beat.

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Watch And Learn: Our Favorite Content About Dancing Animals

Ronan The Beat-Keeping Sea Lion

Key Facts In This Video

  1. Before Ronan the sea lion proved that she could keep a beat, parrots and related birds were the only animals that had demonstrated the ability. 00:13

  2. Ronan the sea lion first learned to bob along in sync with simple sounds, similar to those from a metronome. 00:57

  3. Before Ronan the sea lion was trained, some researchers thought that keeping a beat was tied to vocal mimicry in animals. 01:45

Sea Lions Can Keep A Beat

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Written by Ashley Hamer April 26, 2017

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