Some Birds Get Their Groove On, Too

Since Snowball’s debut on YouTube in 2007, the cockatoo’s dancing abilities have been viewed over 2 million times. Following the cockatoo’s initial dancing debut to the Backstreet Boys’ hit “Everybody,” Snowball can now also be seen dancing to tunes by Queen, Ringo Starr, and Stevie Nicks. In addition to articles in magazines and newspapers and a stint on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” Snowball is now the subject of two scientific articles published in the journal Current Biology.

African gray parrots are also able to keep a beat when music is playing. (Photo credit: artzy/istockphoto.com)

The ability to keep a beat (whether by tapping one’s foot, bobbing one’s head, or doing some other sort of rhythmic movement, such as dancing) has typically been considered a human characteristic. According to the “vocal learning and rhythmic synchronization” hypothesis, the ability to keep a beat to music requires the brain circuitry necessary for complex vocal learning. In turn, this circuitry necessitates a close connection between auditory and motor circuits in the brain. Animals that are capable of vocal-learning include humans, some birds, cetaceans (dolphins and whales), and pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, walruses).

In an article entitled “Experiential Evidence for Synchronization to a Musical Beat in a Nonhuman Mammal,” researchers from The Neurosciences Institute and the University of California at San Diego studied Snowball’s ability to keep time to a variety of different beats. They found that regardless of the tempo of music, the cockatoo was able to adjust the tempo of its rhythmic movements to keep up with the changing beat. This research indicates that the ability to rhythmically move to a beat is not a solely human characteristic.

In a separate study published in the same issue of Current Biology, scientists from Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Brandeis University examined thousands of videos of dancing animals uploaded to YouTube. The researchers also studied videos of Alex, an African grey parrot that was the subject of many scientific studies over its 30-year life span. In systemically analyzing the videos, the scientists determined that only animals that are capable of vocal mimicry are truly able to keep rhythm with a musical beat. According to their article “Spontaneous Motor Entrainment to Music in Multiple Vocal Mimicking Species,” the researchers conclude that the ability to move rhythmically to an auditory pulse (i.e., music) evolved as a by-product of selection for vocal mimicry.

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