Science News

Boogying birds

Sun, 3rd May 2009

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News came out this week that it isnít just people who enjoy a moving and dancing to favourite but birds, it turns out, also like to boogie.

Sulphur Crested CockatooAniruddh Patel from the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, first saw Snowball the sulphur crested cockatoo on a video clip on the website youtube bobbing his head and tapping his feet in time to a pop song.

To find out if Snowball really was feeling the beat, Patel led a team who filmed Snowball dancing to Everybody by the Backstreet boys (one of snowballs favourite tunes). They measured how closely his head bobs and feet taps synchronised with the main beats of the music, and found that rather than randomly bobbing around when music is played and occasionally falling in time with the rhythm, Snowball kept time with the beat just as well as humans volunteers did. He even kept pace as the music was incrementally speeded up and slowed down without changing the pitch of the song.

A second team, also publishing in the journal Current Biology, led by Adena Schachner from Harvard University, found a similar results with another sulphur-crested cockatoo as well as an African grey parrot.

These studies support the theory that entrainment to music, otherwise known as dancing, arose because it just happens that our brains are wired up to be able to hear sounds and mimic them, something that both humans and parrots can do. Vocal mimicry requires a close link between auditory and motor circuits in the brain, and a very similar set up also allows us to respond to music with movement and dance.

Schachnerís team searched through thousands of youtube clips apparently showing animals dancing, and by carrying out the same video analysis they found it was only vocal mimics that were actually keeping in time with the beat. That included 14 species of parrot and an elephant.

We are still a way off fully understanding how and why dancing and enjoying music arose in people. And maybe scientists will work out ways of testing the whether other known vocal mimics can dance, including include hummingbirds, songbirds, dolphins, seals, and some bats. But these studies have already taken us a little closer to understanding what led to us all to enjoying a good boogie on the dance floor.


You can see Snowball dancing here.



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