Spontaneous rhythm discrimination in a mammalian vocal learner

Verga, L., Sroka, M. G. U., Varola, M., Villanueva, S., & Ravignani, A. (2022). Spontaneous rhythm discrimination in a mammalian vocal learner. Biology Letters, 18: 20220316. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2022.0316.
Rhythm and vocal production learning are building blocks of human music and speech. Vocal learning has been hypothesized as a prerequisite for rhythmic capacities. Yet, no mammalian vocal learner but humans have shown the capacity to flexibly and spontaneously discriminate rhythmic patterns. Here we tested untrained rhythm discrimination in a mammalian vocal learning species, the harbour seal (Phoca vitulina). Twenty wild-born seals were exposed to music-like playbacks of conspecific call sequences varying in basic rhythmic properties. These properties were called length, sequence regularity, and overall tempo. All three features significantly influenced seals' reaction (number of looks and their duration), demonstrating spontaneous rhythm discrimination in a vocal learning mammal. This finding supports the rhythm–vocal learning hypothesis and showcases pinnipeds as promising models for comparative research on rhythmic phylogenies.
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