April 30, 2009
"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.
Stop staring at me: birds react to human gaze
(04/06/2009) A new study of jackdaws shows that these crow-like birds react to humans watching them, changing their behavior depending on who is looking and how the gaze moves.
Love puppet used to teach bird how to find mate
(02/14/2009) At the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo Paprika, a male red bird of paradise, presented a challenge for senior wild animal keeper, Patti Cooper. Upon his return from another zoo, Paprika came back with increased human imprinted behaviors, including speaking some English words. While entertaining to some, this wasn't helping him attract a female of his species. Not wanting to give up on him, Patty enlisted the aid of Carolyn Fuchs in WCS’s exhibit shop. Together Patty and Carolyn came up with the idea to create a female red bird of paradise puppet to broaden Paprika’s horizons and give him another chance at love.
When the magpie looks in a mirror, it sees itself
(08/20/2008) Unlike Narcissus of Greek mythology--who upon seeing his reflection in water jumped in thinking it was another--magpies have proven they can recognize their own reflections. Until now, only a small number of primates (chimpanzees, pygmy chimps, and orangutans) have displayed this ability, making the magpie the first bird shown to recognize itself.