Birds Can Dance, Experts (and Zany Videos) Reveal

Matt Kaplan
for National Geographic News
April 30, 2009

His tastes may be sooo ten years ago, but the Backstreet Boys' smallest fan has helped scientists make an all-new discovery: Birds can dance.

Snowball the dancing parrot shifts rhythm as music changes.

And so far, they're the only known animals to display such rhythm.

Cats, dogs, and lab monkeys spend lots of time around human music. But no animal had ever been confirmed as moving to a beat—leading to the common belief that animals ain't got rhythm.

For one of two new studies on animal dancing, Aniruddh Patel at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego and colleagues worked with Snowball the parrot, which seems to love "dancing" to the likes of Queen and Backstreet Boys.

To test whether the sulphur-crested cockatoo was really keeping a beat, the scientists would change the music's tempo—represented in these videos as "BPM" (beats per minute).

Not one to miss a beat, Snowball quickly picked up the new rhythms, stomping and head-bobbing in time.

"We were surprised by the degree Snowball could adjust his tempo," Patel said.

Only "Talking" Birds Can Dance?

The team theorized that dancing in rhythm relies on brain systems for vocal learning, found in humans and many parrots—an idea put to the test by the other study, led by Adena Schachner at Harvard University.

Schachner's team reviewed thousands of YouTube videos showing bird species that imitate sounds "dancing" to music.

YouTube videos excerpted above helped confirm unique ability of vocal-learning birds.

"Across the hundreds of species in the database, we only found evidence of keeping a beat in species that could imitate sound," Schachner said.

Aqua Boogie?

The finding is a bit surprising, since wild parrots are not known to dance to other birds' songs, Schachner said.

No other wild animals are known to dance in time with music, either, for that matter. But the Neurosciences Institute's Patel noted that other animals are vocal learners, including a few that aren't born with dancing feet—or any feet at all.

"I'm now particularly interested in finding out if dolphins can move to the beat of music, as they, like humans, and unlike all other primates, are vocal-learning mammals."

(Also see "Got Rhythm? Baby Zebrafish Do.")

Findings published online in Current Biology on April 30, 2009.

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