A sea lion is seen at Isla de Asia
Sea lion (representational image)Reuters

A sea lion in California has become the first non-human mammal to be trained to bob her head in time with rhythmic sounds.

The California sea lion, called Ronan, shows an extraordinary ability to keep up with the beat, which scientists say is a "rhythmic entrainment."

It was hypothesised that beat-keeping requires a capacity for complex vocal learning that is unique to humans. Even birds with a talent for vocal mimicry including Snowball the Cockatoo and Alex the Parrot have shown their talent in beat keeping.

But, for the first time a non-human mammal (sea lion) has exposed its ability to keep in tune with the music. Ronan's ability to bob her head in time with tempos and music she hadn't heard before challenges the leading theory about the origins of rhythmic ability, said researchers.

Ronan was born in the wild in 2008. She was rescued by the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito in 2009 and in 2010, she joined the joined the Pinniped Cognition and Sensory Systems Laboratory at University of California.

The beat-keeping research involving Ronan was initially carried out by Peter Cook, a graduate student in psychology at UC Santa Cruz, as a side study. But the idea to use her in the study was partly triggered by the sea lion's ability to learn quickly.

"From my first interactions with her, it was clear that Ronan was a particularly bright sea lion," Cook said in a statement. "Everybody in the animal cognition world, including me, was intrigued by the dancing bird studies, but I remember thinking that no one had attempted a strong effort to show beat keeping in an animal other than a parrot. I figured training a mammal to move in time to music would be hard, but Ronan seemed like an ideal subject."

Cook trained Ronan to bob her head to simple rhythmic tracks. As she mastered the technique, Ronan began moving her head in time with the tempos and the music. "Given her success at keeping the beat with new rhythm tracks and songs following her initial training, it's possible that keeping the beat isn't that hard for her," Cook said. "She just had to learn what it was we wanted her to do."

In fact, Cook noticed that Ronan performs much better in her ability to keep up with the beat than birds, which are known to share a close bond with humans. While birds do well in finding the tempo in music, they are not able to stay right on the beat as Ronan, said Cook. He is currently working with another researcher to understand the implications of these new findings.

The details of the findings are published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology.