Why Some Animals Get the Beat and Others Don't

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Ronan, a California sea lion found stranded on scenic Highway 1, is a dancing sensation who continues to improve her grooves, shedding light on why some animals can move to a beat while others have the proverbial two left feet.

Both Ronan and a famous dancing cockatoo named Snowball might be hearing and feeling beats. Videos that went viral on YouTube show them dancing to such tunes as "Boogie Wonderland" and a Michael Jackson medley.

"There's a reason that popular dance music tends to have very heavy bass," Peter Cook, who studies Ronan, told Discovery News. "The combination of feeling and hearing the beat makes it easier to perceive and match with movement."

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Animals that can mimic sound can also keep a beat, implying an evolutionary link between the two abilities.
Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

Cook, a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University, reported on the beat-keeping sea lion's surprising rhythmic ability at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Chicago.

When Cook was first introduced to Ronan, he noticed how intelligent this particular sea lion was, and how she has "boundless enthusiasm and drive for taking on new and challenging training."

At first, Ronan tended to bob her head slightly behind faster beats and slightly ahead of slower beats.

Photos: Mammals of the Sea

"More recently," Cook said, "this has almost completely disappeared, and she now tends to bob almost exactly on the beat with most stimuli, suggesting that her rhythmic capability is improving with practice."

The skill requires complicated movements and brain processing. First, the individual has to perceive rhythm in sound and/or vibration. Next, a tight synchrony between perceptual and bodily movement systems needs to happen to produce regular movements (i.e. dancing) that coincide with the sound/vibration signals. On top of that, the dancer needs to make quick adjustments for things like changes of rate in the music.

"Although beat-keeping is complex, I believe the necessary neurological equipment is available in most mammals and birds," Cook said.

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