Ronan, a California sea lion found stranded on scenic Highway 1, is a dancing sensation who continues to improve her grooves, shedding light on why some animals can move to a beat while others have the proverbial two left feet.

Both Ronan and a famous dancing cockatoo named Snowball might be hearing and feeling beats. Videos that went viral on YouTube show them dancing to such tunes as "Boogie Wonderland" and a Michael Jackson medley.

"There's a reason that popular dance music tends to have very heavy bass," Peter Cook, who studies Ronan, told Discovery News. "The combination of feeling and hearing the beat makes it easier to perceive and match with movement."

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Cook, a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University, reported on the beat-keeping sea lion's surprising rhythmic ability at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Chicago.

When Cook was first introduced to Ronan, he noticed how intelligent this particular sea lion was, and how she has "boundless enthusiasm and drive for taking on new and challenging training."

At first, Ronan tended to bob her head slightly behind faster beats and slightly ahead of slower beats.

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"More recently," Cook said, "this has almost completely disappeared, and she now tends to bob almost exactly on the beat with most stimuli, suggesting that her rhythmic capability is improving with practice."

The skill requires complicated movements and brain processing. First, the individual has to perceive rhythm in sound and/or vibration. Next, a tight synchrony between perceptual and bodily movement systems needs to happen to produce regular movements (i.e. dancing) that coincide with the sound/vibration signals. On top of that, the dancer needs to make quick adjustments for things like changes of rate in the music.

"Although beat-keeping is complex, I believe the necessary neurological equipment is available in most mammals and birds," Cook said.

Ronan, the dancing sea lion, can feel the beat.C. Reichmuth

The anatomy of most fish and reptiles is hardly suitable for dancing. Even Ronan has certain limitations, preferring head bobbing to flipper waving, for example, since the former is easier and allows for more flexibility.

Humans, though, aren't the only ones to use dancing in social situations to attract mates and admiration from onlookers.

Irena Schulz, director of the non-profit avian education organization Bird Lovers Only that houses Snowball, says that male cockatoos "display dance-like and other rhythmic behaviors to attract females." Some, for example, rhythmically sway, while others drum on tree branches with a stick to get a female’s attention.

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Certain species are then naturally better at keeping a beat. Cook, Schulz and others are also trying to determine if a talent for vocal mimicry also predicts dancing ability, since both skills require matching incoming sound info with outgoing behaviors (vocalizing or grooving).

Sea lions, however, are not known to do vocal mimicry and have a limited repertoire of sounds, so it could be that a capacity for complex vocal learning is not necessary to boogie.

Yet another factor is the individual animal. Just as some people are better dancers than others, some particular animals are better beat-keepers than other members of their own species.

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Musical tastes also come into play. Schulz said that she conducted musical therapy studies involving Snowball and an OCD cockatoo that used to pluck her feathers out. Schulz discovered that "the type of music that the OCD bird found to be calming was actually making Snowball more agitated/stir crazy. Likewise, the music that made the OCD parrot most agitated was the music that Snowball enjoyed most."

As she said, "What is good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander."