This video and story have apparently gone viral, but I had to share them. A psychology graduate student at UCSC has taught a sea lion, nicknamed Ronan, to keep a beat AKA “rhythmic entrainment.” This was the first time a non-human mammal has been shown to be able to keep in time with various rhythmic sounds. The ability to appreciate Earth, Wind & Fire was previously thought to be reserved for birds because of their vocal mimicry capabilities. It may seem like Ronan could just be bobbing her head, but according to her trainer, “She was flawless with Earth, Wind & Fire. The song changes from 107 to 130 beats per minute, and she changes with it.” Hence, Ronan does actually understand what she is supposed to be doing. Pretty exciting! The article is also good for understanding operant conditioning because it elaborates on the stages of training that were necessary to teach the pinniped how to find her groove.
While sea lions do not have the capacity for human vocal mimicry, some people believe this is a skill not impossible for marine animals. Here is a youtube link to a short story about a beluga whale that can make “human-like” noises. I agree the noises made by the beluga are a stretch for qualifying as a human voice, but they seemed real enough to the tank worker who jumped out of the beluga’s enclosure because a voice told him to. Before you totally discredit this “beluga babble,” think about what people sound like when they talk underwater. We are not super understandable either. According to the video, dolphins are also known to make noises resembling human speech.
Extra: On the bird-music tangent, here is a favorite video of mine that shows a bird dancing to Whip My Hair. This video is not about a bird keeping beat or dancing on her own. I’m sure it’s the owner just telling her to do tricks that go with the music, but it’s entertaining nonetheless.