Birds can dance, proving humans aren't the only ones with rhythm

Jeremy Hance
April 30, 2009

Another ability long-thought to belong solely to humans, like tool-use or counting, does in fact occur in other species, according to two new studies. In this case, it is the capacity to move rhythmically with music. Studying two different birds the research groups found that the birds weren’t just moving randomly or mimicking owners, but actually changing the tempo of their movement to match the music—in other words, dancing.

"Our analyses showed that these birds' movements were more lined up with the musical beat than we'd expect by chance," Adena Schachner of Harvard University, who led one of two studies. "We found strong evidence that they were synchronizing with the beat, something that has not been seen before in other species."

The studies, published in Current Biology disprove the long held belief that only humans can dance. Schachner says that considering the evidence, such a belief wasn’t surprising: "after all, there is no convincing evidence that our closest relatives, chimpanzees and other apes, can keep a beat, and there is similarly no evidence that our pet dogs and cats can line up their actions with a musical beat, in spite of extensive experience with humans. In this work, however, we found that entrainment [to music] is not uniquely human; we find strong evidence for it in birds, specifically in parrots."

Dr. Aniruddh Patel of The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, lead author of the other study, worked with a dancing sulphur-crested cockatoo.

"We've discovered a cockatoo that dances to the beat of human music," he said. "Using a controlled experiment, we've shown that if the music speeds up or slows down across a wide range, he adjusts the tempo of his dancing to stay synchronized to the beat."

The cockatoo named ‘Snowball’ has become famous on YouTube and has even obtained his own wikipedia entry due to his impressive skills and his role in scientific research.

The studies imply dancing in not an evolutionary specialization in humans, but may in fact be linked to a species’ vocal learning and mimicry, a capacity parrots and humans share. The theory was first developed by Patel.

"The particular theory was that natural selection for vocal mimicry resulted in a brain mechanism that was also needed for moving to a beat,” says Schachner. “This theory made a really specific prediction: Only animals that can mimic sound should be able to keep a beat."

Schachner scanned YouTube for insight into possible other dancing species. She and her team watched over 1,000 videos and found that the animals capable of really sustaining and changing a rhythm with music were 13 different species of parrots and an elephant, leading Schachner to conclude “that some of the brain mechanisms needed for human dance originally evolved to allow us to imitate sound.”

Patel encourages further study into the possible dancing abilities of other “vocal-learning species”, such as dolphins, songbirds, walruses, seals, and elephants.

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Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (April 30, 2009).

Birds can dance, proving humans aren't the only ones with rhythm.