A beat-keeping sea lion sheds insight about how human rhythm came to be. C. Reichmuth

Ronan the sea lion has a unique talent that has shed new light on animal cognition. The rescued female sea lion can keep a beat and bob her head in time with music, even with new sounds she hasn’t heard before. For researchers, this has led to new theories on how widespread rhythmic ability may be among other animals.

Rhythmic ability in non-human animals was only previously discovered in birds with vocal mimicry abilities, such as parrots or mynah birds, according to research from the University of California--Santa Cruz. It was believed the ability to keep rhythm or a beat was related to this vocal ability. A 2009 study involving Snowball the parrot indicated birds could dance to a rhythm and keep a beat, notes National Geographic.

Adena Schachner, a researcher from Harvard University, led a study that analyzed thousands of YouTube videos to determine which birds can keep a beat, concluding species with the ability for vocal mimicry were the only birds that could keep a rhythm. The conclusions drawn from the bird studies led researchers to test dolphins to see if they could keep a beat.

Ronan’s ability changed the notion of which animals can keep a beat, as sea lions do not have a wide vocal range nor do they mimic sounds. The sea lion was rescued in 2009 after being found stranded for a third time. Animal behaviorists found out how apt a pupil Ronan was and Peter Cook, then at UC--Santa Cruz, began training her to keep a beat. Ronan was first taught to bob her head to certain sounds and later trained to apply those skills to music and sounds she had never heard before.

Presenting his research at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Cook and other researchers have shown other animals can keep a beat. Edward W. Large of Florida Atlantic University has worked with bonobo monkeys that can keep a beat; Yuko Hattori of Kyoto University works with chimpanzees who also have rhythmic ability; and Hugo Merchant, from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, believes a primitive rhythmic sense can be discerned in macaques. Another study showed an Asian elephant who was capable of keeping a beat.

"Along with other recent findings, this suggests that the neural mechanisms underpinning flexible beat-keeping may be much more widely distributed across the animal kingdom than previously thought," said Cook in a statement."

For animal-cognition researchers, finding out which animals can keep a beat is just the beginning. New research can lead to insights on the evolution of the ability, how the ability developed in humans and the mechanisms behind the rhythmic ability of nonvocal animals like Ronan the sea lion.

The video of Ronan's ability to keep a beat, courtesy of the Pinniped Cognition and Sensory Systems Laboratory, can be viewed below.