Sea Lion Keeps The Beat In Pursuit Of Science

Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon talks with University of California-Santa Cruz graduate student Peter Cook, who trained a sea lion to bob her head in time with music. This challenges a leading theory on rhythmic entrainment that only animals with the capabilities of vocal mimicry could keep a beat.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A California sea lion has been taught how to bob her head in time to the Backstreet Boys.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BACKSTREET BOYS: (Singing) Backstreet, backstreet, all right.

SIMON: She is reportedly the first non-human mammal to achieve this dancing feat. Her name is Ronan. Peter Cook, a graduate student at the University of California in Santa Cruz is the man responsible for training Ronan. He joins us now from the studios of KUSP in Santa Cruz. Thanks very much for being with us.

PETER COOK: Oh, thanks for having me. It's my pleasure.

SIMON: First off, does the world need a dancing sea lion?

(LAUGHTER)

COOK: The world didn't necessarily need a dancing sea lion, but I do think scientists were studying rhythm comparatively in humans and other animals did need to look at an animal like a sea lion, an animal who is not a human or who was not a parrot. These were the animals that had been show to be able to do it previously.

SIMON: And how did you train her?

COOK: The first thing we did was we trained Ronan to move her head continuously up and down. We just call it bobbing. And what we then did was we made it so that the cue for moving her head was actually hearing any sound. So as long as Ronan heard a sound, she would waggle her head up and down. And we were curious, if that sound was rhythmic, whether Ronan would move her head in time to the beat.

We started with something like a metronome, so we didn't use music at first.

(SOUNDBITE OF METRONOME)

COOK: Exactly. And I set about reinforcing Ronan, so giving her fish when her head movement appeared to be matched with the metronome sound.

SIMON: Backstreet Boys' song, let's say that's four and a half minutes. That's a lot of fish.

COOK: Pretty remarkably, Ronan gets one small fish at the end of each string of successful bobs, so actually, given the amount of effort that goes into it and potentially the mentally taxing nature of doing this for a sea lion, the fish were always on the small side. It kind of seemed like Ronan was somewhat internally motivated to do this. I think sea lions are, they're really curious sort of motivated species and I think they like problems.

SIMON: Best as you know, does she have a favorite song?

COOK: Boogie Wonderland by Earth, Wind and Fire is far and away her favorite. Yeah. The Backstreet Boys, she was good and she was willing to participate, but I didn't feel like she had the same spark as when we gave her the disco.

SIMON: Does Ronan stay with you in the University of California system or does she have a future in show business?

(LAUGHTER)

COOK: Well, Ronan is first and foremost a research animal. She lives at Long Marine Lab, which is affiliated with University of California Santa Cruz and I think she's probably got a long and relatively happy life ahead in research.

SIMON: Forgive me. Are you quite certain that somewhere inside she's not going, gotta dance, gotta dance?

(LAUGHTER)

COOK: As a scientist, I'd say it's unlikely, but yeah, maybe. Maybe.

SIMON: Peter Cook, trainer of Ronan the bobbing sea lion, speaking with us from Santa Cruz. Thanks so much for being with us.

COOK: Oh, it was a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOOGIE WONDERLAND")

EARTH, WIND AND FIRE: (Singing) Boogie wonderland, huh, huh. Boogie wonderland. Huh, huh, I find romance where...

SIMON: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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