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This cuddly sea lion pup may be the first mammal besides humans ever known to learn dance movements. (Courtesy Peter Cook)

Can Sea Lions Dance?

A sea lion pup in California proves that humans aren’t the only mammals with rhythm

By Jack Silbert | null null , null
<p>Ronan’s caretakers trained her to dance and rewarded her with fish! (Courtesy Peter Cook)</p>

Ronan’s caretakers trained her to dance and rewarded her with fish! (Courtesy Peter Cook)

You’ve heard of Dancing With the Stars. But how about Dancing With the Sea Lions? A team of researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, have trained a sea lion to bob its head to music. Before now, scientists thought that only humans and some birds could react to music like that.


Scientists have long known that many animals are capable of mimicking (copying or imitating) human speech and language. But not much research has been completed on how animals mimic or understand human movement.

For the past several years, scientists had been very interested in Snowball, a cockatoo, which is a type of bird. A popular video on the Internet shows Snowball “dancing” to music. What scientists wanted to know was whether Snowball had truly learned to dance or was merely copying moves from a very good teacher.

Researcher Peter Cook wondered if he could teach a sea lion to do the same thing. For the experiment, he chose Ronan, a 3-year-old female California sea lion that lives at the UC, Santa Cruz’s Long Marine Laboratory.

The first step was to teach Ronan to bob her head up and down. Next, Cook trained Ronan to start bobbing her head when she heard a sound. Finally, there was the most important step: teaching Ronan to bob her head to the beat of the music. (The beat is the steady pulse of a song that you can tap your foot or clap your hands to.) When Ronan did this correctly, she was rewarded with a fish!

The tricky part came when Ronan was introduced to new music with a more complicated beat. She was able to find any beat in new songs and still reacted with the same dance in step with the music. Scientists call this “rhythmic entertainment,” and no nonhuman mammal before this peppy pup has ever been scientifically proven to have this ability.


Ronan was the perfect pup for the experiment, says Cook. “It was clear that Ronan was a particularly bright sea lion,” he says. Scientists are still unsure of whether all sea lions are capable of dancing, or perhaps Ronan is just unusually talented. But at least we know that Ronan is probably the best dancer of all the sea lions in the world.

In fact, Ronan is the star of her own popular online video. (Click here to watch Ronan’s dancing moves.) She even seems to have a favorite song for dancing: an old disco hit called “Boogie Wonderland”!

Scientists are now wondering if other types of animals might have this same dancing talent. “People have assumed that animals lack these abilities,” Cook says. “In some cases, people just hadn’t looked.”

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