Forget the fox trot and funky chicken, because a head-bopping California sea lion named Ronan has been described by researchers as the “most reliable non-human beat keeper” ever observed. She may not have a tail feather to shake, but Ronan’s incredible sense of rhythm has helped scientists gain an insight into the evolutionary roots of mankind’s musical capabilities.
Ronan’s dance floor prowess was first made famous in 2013, when researchers from the University of California, Santa Cruz, published a video of her bopping her head in time to her favorite tune – Boogie Wonderland by Earth, Wind and Fire. Though several other animals had previously been found to be able to keep a beat – including bonobos, chimpanzees, and a Queen-loving cockatoo named snowball – Ronan really challenged all scientific theories, as unlike these other species, sea lions have no vocal flexibility.
Until Ronan came along, researchers had assumed that the ability to keep a beat had evolved in tandem with the capacity to create complex vocalizations, and therefore believed that these two characteristics must rely on the same complex brain connections, which only exist in highly cognitive animals.
However, despite being too cognitively primitive to warrant an invite to the party, Ronan unexpectedly gatecrashed the disco with her amazingly precise head bopping. This led her trainers to suspect that the ability to keep a beat may in fact have much deeper evolutionary roots than previously thought, and might not rely on complex brain mechanisms at all.
As a bonus, here's Snowball the cockatoo channeling his inner Freddie Mercury
Instead, they propose that beat keeping may be controlled by neural resonance. This theory basically states that the neurons responsible for detecting sounds spontaneously synchronize their firing rate with the beat of a song. This then causes other neurons involved in coordinating movement to become “coupled”, so that they oscillate at the same rate, enabling us to boogie in time with a tune. Such a process does not require any complicated brain wiring, and instead is controlled by the physical principles of coupled oscillation – much like how two swinging pendulums resonate in synchronicity when they interact.
To test this hypothesis, the researchers observed how Ronan adjusted her movements as they altered the tempo of the music, paying attention to how long it took her to re-synchronize her head bobs with the beat. Using the same mathematical formulas that can be applied to swinging pendulums to calculate how long it should take them to synchronize when the forces acting upon them are altered, the team were able to figure out if Ronan’s movements could be used to corroborate the neural resonance theory.
Publishing their study in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, the authors explain that the lag between Ronan’s movements and the beat when they switched the tempo of the music, as well as the number of beats it took her to re-align her dancing with this beat, could be neatly predicted by the mathematical principles of coupled oscillation. This suggests that her musical capabilities are most likely the product of simple neural resonance, rather than any specific brain circuitry.
As such, it is likely that musicality has much broader evolutionary roots than previously assumed, which means many more animals may in fact have better moves than we currently give them credit for.