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From the Halls of Science: Dancing Sea Lion, Talking Monkeys

It's cute until you realize you paid for it. A team of four researchers from UC Santa Cruz took their grant from the Office of Naval Research and taught a California sea lion, Ronan, to bob her head rhythmically to the beat of several pop-music hits of the 60s, 70s, and 90s. You can see the performance above. It's all faithfully analyzed in the Journal of Comparative Psychology ("A California Sea Lion (Zalophus californianus) Can Keep the Beat: Motor Entrainment to Rhythmic Auditory Stimuli in a Non Vocal Mimic").

The LA Times is impressed:

The team taught the sea lion to bob along to 1969's "Down on the Corner" by Creedence Clearwater Revival, the 1979 single "Boogie Wonderland" by Earth, Wind & Fire -- and yes, the Backstreet Boys' "Everybody," apparently quite popular in the animal kingdom.
It would be interesting to know how much they got for that. It's military research, you understand.

Another question is why the sea lion study didn't make it in the journal Current Biology, a publication that has created something of a specialty of animals who can do human-like tricks of this kind. You may remember the beluga that could "talk," and the Asian elephant that appeared to know some words in Korean, both reported in the same venue.

It's all pretty underwhelming. Current Biology, however, did score in the news this week with an article reporting admittedly eerie-sounding vocalizations by an Ethiopian monkey, the gelada ("Speech-like vocalized lip-smacking in geladas"). You can see a movie here. Says the BBC: "Primate call gives clues to human speech origins."

These creatures engage in lip-smacking behavior that will remind you a little, very little, if you squint your eyes, of people speaking. Or possibly chewing gum, one or the other. The vocalizations that go along with it are strange and indeed sound somewhat queerly human. The hypothesis is floated, as I didn't even have to tell you, that this represents a "plausible" path that evolution may have trodden long ago in our own history.

"Our finding provides support for the lip-smacking origins of speech because it shows that this evolutionary pathway is at least plausible," Thore Bergman of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and author of the study published Monday, April 8, in the journal Current Biology, said in a statement. "It demonstrates that nonhuman primates can vocalize while lip-smacking to produce speechlike sounds."
Well, if you tell a beguiling story about it, a lot of things seem "plausible." Yet being able to make these peculiar "meh!"-like sounds doesn't get a monkey very far -- not a bit farther than being able to pound away on a typewriter keyboard -- if it's got nothing to say.

I'm sorry, in the final analysis, none of this holds a candle to Tucker the Singing Dog, whom you can see and enjoy in performance on YouTube. Tucker has not been the subject of a write-up in Current Biology, which seems rather unfair. Every viewing, I find, is its own reward. That schnoodle rocks.