Birds Have Got the Beat

Turn it up! Scientists have discovered that some species of birds can dance

Previously, it was believed that dancing was unique to humans. Now, two separate studies have shown that parrots have the ability to bob their heads and tap their feet to a number of different beats, proving that humans aren't the only ones with rhythm. One of the birds studied even has a favorite song: "Everybody" by the Backstreet Boys.

Researchers at both Harvard University and the Neuroscience Institute (NSI) in La Jolla, California published the research today in Current Biology in two separate articles. The scientists theorize that the ability to dance evolved as a by-product in animals that are capable of complex vocal learning, which involves converting a sound that they have heard into a behavior aimed at reproducing that sound. This process requires a tight integration of motor and auditory circuits in the brain. Only a handful of animals are vocal learners, including humans, parrots, dolphins, elephants and seals.

According to John Iversen of NSI, one of the authors of the study from that institution, the researchers have been interested in finding evidence of music synchronization in animals for years. They discovered a YouTube video of a dancing yellow-crested cockatoo named Snowball in 2007, and got permission from the bird's owner to test his skills in the lab. The scientists tested Snowball on a song that he was familiar with at a variety of tempos (the Backstreet Boys tune) and found that he changed the rate of his own dancing according to the speed of the music (see video above).

The research team at Harvard, led by Adena Schachner, tested both Snowball and an African grey parrot named Alex with music neither bird had heard before at two different tempos, and found that both birds spontaneously danced along with the music (see video below). The team also conducted a search of YouTube videos for both vocal learning and non-vocal learning animals to see which other species out there have the moves. Fitting with their theory, the only animals that could dance were 14 parrot species and one elephant species.

The next step in research is to see how Snowball and Alex learn to dance to new songs, as well as extending the studies to other species including dolphins and seals. The ultimate goal is to get a better understanding of the brain mechanisms behind dancing, which may have practical applications in understanding movement disorders (like Parkinson's) in humans.

The research may also shed light on why humans wanna dance.