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This sea lion grooves to a disco beat

Peter Cook, a researcher at the University of California at Santa Cruz, explains how a sea lion was trained to keep up with a musical beat.

Ronan the sea lion is as cute as a cockatoo when she bobs her head in time with "Boogie Wonderland," but this isn't just one more viral video: The researchers behind the experiment say it challenges current conceptions about how animals keep the beat.

A team from the University of California at Santa Cruz says Ronan is the first non-human mammal to show convincing scientific evidence of beat-keeping. She thus follows in the trailblazing footsteps of Snowball the Cockatoo, Alex the Parrot and other birds that have demonstrated you don't have to be human to get rhythm.

"The fact that we showed Ronan could do it means that there's a raw capability in sea lions," lead researcher Peter Cook, a graduate student in psychology at UC-Santa Cruz, told NBC News.

That's precisely what poses the challenge: Previously, scientists had assumed that the ability to move in time with a beat was connected to the ability for vocal learning and vocal mimicry, That's something that humans, cockatoos, parrots and budgies can do. But sea lions aren't mimics. When was the last time you heard a sea lion say, "Polly wants a snapper"?

"Our finding represents a cautionary note for an idea that was really starting to take hold in the field of comparative psychology," Cook said in a news release. The experiments with Ronan appear in Monday's issue of the Journal of Comparative Psychology.

Ronan was born in the wild in 2008, but apparently wasn't suited for life in the wild. Rescuers had to save her from being stranded three times — and after the third time, she was taken into captivity. In 2010, she joined UC-Santa Cruz's Pinniped Cognition and Sensory Systems Laboratory and took part in control studies focusing on the effects of a natural neurotoxin produced by algae on the California coast.

C. Reichmuth / UCSC

Graduate student Peter Cook trained Ronan, a California sea lion, to bob her head in time with a rhythm.

Cook's beat-keeping study was a side project, sparked in part by Ronan's facility for rapid learning. "From my first interactions with her, it was clear that Ronan was a particularly bright sea lion," Cook said. "Everybody in the animal cognition world, including me, was intrigued by the dancing-bird studies, but I remember thinking that on 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 and research technician Andrew Rouse spent several months training Ronan to pay heed to a musical beat, working mostly on the weekends. They started out with a simple rhythm track, with food serving as a reward for the proper head-bobbing behavior. Eventually, Ronan could bob her head in time with a variety of tunes, including some that she was hearing for the first time. (Cook said "Boogie Wonderland" appears to be her favorite.)

Now Cook is wondering whether Snowball and other avian beat-keepers came by their musical ability innately, or whether they picked up their training from the humans they live with. "Some of these parrots are not intentionally trained, but they do have decades of complex interaction with humans," he said.

Even humans may need help when it comes to moving with the rhythm. (If you've ever seen me dance, you'd be certain of it.) "The literature on this is a bit fractured, but there's some evidence of 'apprenticeship' in beat-keeping, even in humans," Cook said.

Can other species be trained to boogie down? Cook and his colleagues intend to find out. "We know some people who have horses, and a lot of people who have dogs," he said. And if Ronan's boogie goes viral, there may well be lots more videos to check out. "I wouldn't be surprised if we get some people coming out of the woodwork with some verifiable cases," Cook said.

Have you seen animals that can move in time with the music? Share your stories in the comment section below.

Update for 9:10 p.m. April 2: Adena Schachner, a post-doctoral researcher at Boston University who has studied beat-keeping birds such as Snowball and Alex, said in an email that the newly published study "provides an important step toward understanding the evolution and cognition of keeping a beat":

"Since (as far as we know) sea lions cannot imitate sound, I agree with the authors that this work falsifies the idea that the capacity for vocal imitation is a necessary precondition for entrainment.

"However, it's interesting to note that some closely related marine mammals — harbor seals — are known to imitate sound. This makes me wonder whether sea lions might have inherited some (though not all) of the cognitive machinery associated with vocal imitation from a vocal-mimicking common ancestor of seals and sea lions. If their common ancestor was able to imitate sound, this leaves open a weaker version of the vocal learning hypothesis, in which the capacity for vocal mimicry is not needed for entrainment, but a history of selection for vocal mimicry is still needed to produce the relevant brain mechanisms. These brain mechanisms may then be partially conserved over the course of evolution, supporting entrainment even if the capacity for vocal imitation disappears.

"That's probably a longer and more nuanced story than you were looking for! But the bottom line is: I think this is important and interesting work, and makes a strong case for entrainment in sea lions. This new finding, in conjunction with past findings of entrainment in parrots (and humans), helps lead us toward a greater understanding of the evolutionary and cognitive basis of our ability to move in time to music."

More about animal aptitude:

In addition to Cook and Rouse, the authors of "A California Sea Lion (Zalophus californianus) Can Keep the Beat: Motor Entrainment to Rhythmic Auditory Stimuli in a Non Vocal Mimic" include Margaret Wilson and Colleen Reichmuth.

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.