The sea lion that can keep a beat

New research could shed light on music’s role in human society

by Kate Lunau

Itsuo Inouye/AP

Itsuo Inouye/AP

Kate Lunau is in Chicago covering the 2013 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), where some of the world’s finest brains and the celebrities of science mix, mingle, and share their latest ideas. From Feb. 14 to 18, she’ll be blogging and tweeting from Chicago on some of the latest—and most exciting—research. Follow her @katelunau #AAASmtg

Why do we humans keep a beat? Why is it that, when we hear an enticing piece of music, we tap along, and even begin to dance? The role of music in human society, which dates back thousands and thousands of yearscarved flutes by ice-age peoples predate the oldest cave paintings ever discovered, according to Aniruddh Patel of Tufts Universityis still not well understood. “Is it just something that we and a couple of other species do? Or is it latent in all animal brains?” Patel asked today on a panel at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in Chicago. Studies of birds, apes and even a sea lion are providing valuable clues that may help us understand how our own musical capacity evolved.

Some types of birds, like parrots and cockatoos, seem to be quite good at detecting a beat. (Snowball, a sulfur-crested cockatoo, has been observed bobbing his head to a Backstreet Boys song across a range of tempos.) And researcher Patricia Gray, who was also on-hand with Patel, discussed her work with bonobo apes like the famous Kanzi, who’s played music with Peter Gabriel. In the wild, “both bonobos and chimpanzees will beat on hollow trees,” says Gray, although we still don’t know exactly why. (Monkeys, however, seem to have a lot of difficulty keeping a beat.) Even so, apes are our close ancestors; and birds like parrots and cockatoos are famous vocal mimics. One of the biggest surprises has come from a California sea lion named Ronan, a species that doesn’t seem to be capable of complex vocal learning; although this sea lion can, it turns out, bop along to a beat.

“We thought, let’s find an animal that’s not closely related to humans, and not vocally flexible,” says Peter Cook, who was then at the University of California, Santa Cruz and is now at Emory University. “Sea lions are extremely charismatic and very adaptive,” he continues; they also eat a lot, providing plenty of opportunities to train them with snacks. And while primates might push back against overly formal exercises, sea lions seem to thrive on it. “They’re kind of type A, I guess.” Initially, Ronan wasn’t able to synchronize with a beat, but after months of training, she could transfer between a range of tempos. This is a key difference between Ronan’s behaviour and what we might see in a circus animal, Cook says: those may be responding to visual cues, or performing a preordained dance routine. Ronan was responding directly to music. He says, “it was just her and the beat.”

Ronan’s surprising ability raises a host of questions about what other creatures might be able to keep a beat (Cook wants to study horses next). Learning about them will help us understand why music seems to be so deeply ingrained in human culture; and that the ability to keep a beat, maybe even to dance, isn’t so strictly human at all.


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