Monday, February 17, 2014

A sea lion that bops to a musical beat

Kate Lanau reported for Maclean’s on a panel at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in Chicago, about how studies of animals may help us understand the evolution of our own musical capacity. Below is an excerpt:

“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 behavior 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.’

Read the whole article on the Maclean’s web site.

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