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Parrots have got rhythm, studies find

April 30, 2009
Courtesy Cell Press
and World Science staff

It seems peo­ple aren’t the only ones who’ve got rhythm. 

Sci­en­tists say they have con­firmed through stud­ies and through anal­y­ses of YouTube videos that some types of par­rot­s—and pos­sibly an ele­phant—can al­so bob their heads, tap their feet, and sway their bod­ies along to a mu­si­cal beat.

The find­ings come in two re­ports pub­lished on­line April 30 in the re­search jour­nal Cur­rent Bi­ol­o­gy.

 

The cockatoo "Snowball" dances.


“We’ve dis­cov­ered a cock­a­too that dances to the beat of hu­man mu­sic,” said Aniruddh Pa­tel of The Neu­ro­sci­ences In­sti­tute in San Die­go, Calif., lead au­thor of one of the stud­ies. “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 bird, named Snow­ball, has a par­tic­u­lar pre­di­lec­tion for the song “Ev­ery­body” by the Back­street Boys, he added; it also stamps its feet fierce­ly to Queen’s “An­other One Bites the Dust.”

“For a long time, peo­ple have thought that the abil­ity to move to a beat was un­ique to hu­mans,” said Ade­na Schach­ner of Har­vard Uni­ver­s­ity, who led the oth­er stu­dy. “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” do so. Birds in the wild aren’t known to move in time with sounds, Pa­tel added.

Re­search­ers now sus­pect that the par­rots’ abil­ity is trace­a­ble to anoth­er ca­pacity they share with peo­ple: vo­cal learn­ing or mim­ic­ry. In­deed, Schach­ner’s group searched YouTube for videos of danc­ing an­i­mals. Of more than 1,000 videos that turned up, only those of vo­cal mim­ics – rep­re­sent­ing 14 par­rot spe­cies and one spe­cies of el­e­phant – showed ev­i­dence that they could really get in­to the groove.

That dove­tails with a no­tion pro­posed by Pa­tel that “en­train­ment” or sus­tained move­ment to a mu­si­cal beat re­lies on the brain cir­cuit­ry for com­plex vo­cal learn­ing, which re­quires a tight link be­tween au­di­to­ry and mo­tor cir­cuits in the brain, the sci­en­tists said. 

“A nat­u­ral ques­tion about these re­sults is wheth­er they gen­er­al­ize to oth­er par­rots, or more broad­ly, to oth­er vo­cal-learn­ing spe­cies,” in­clud­ing song­birds, dol­phins, el­e­phants, and pin­nipeds, a group in­clud­ing wal­rus­es and seals, Pa­tel said. 

The find­ings in birds may of­fer new in­sight in­to hu­mans’ rela­t­ion­ship to mu­sic. “Why hu­mans pro­duce and en­joy mu­sic is an ev­o­lu­tion­ary puz­zle,” Schachn­er’s team wrote. De­bate con­tin­ues over the idea that hu­man mu­si­cal ca­pacity did not arise as a s re­sult of di­rect ev­o­lu­tion­ary pres­sures, but indi­rectly, as a byprod­uct of pres­sures to im­prove oth­er abil­i­ties.

“By sup­port­ing the idea that en­train­ment emerged as a byprod­uct of vo­cal mim­ic­ry in avi­an spe­cies, the cur­rent find­ings lend plau­si­bil­ity to the idea that the hu­man en­train­ment ca­pacity evolved as a byprod­uct of our ca­pacity for vo­cal mim­ic­ry,” the re­search­ers wrote.


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It seems people aren’t the only ones who’ve got rhythm. Scientists say they have confirmed through studies and through analyses of YouTube videos that some types of parrots—and possibly an elephant—can also bob their heads, tap their feet, and sway their bodies along to a musical beat. The findings come in two reports published online April 30 in the research journal Current Biology. “We’ve discovered a cockatoo that dances to the beat of human music,” said Aniruddh Patel of The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, Calif., lead author of one of the studies. “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 bird, named Snowball, has a particular predilection for the song “Everybody” by the Backstreet Boys, he added. “For a long time, people have thought that the ability to move to a beat was unique to humans,” said Adena Schachner of Harvard University, who led the other study. “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” do so. Birds in the wild aren’t known to move in time with sounds, Patel added. Researchers now suspect that the parrots’ ability is traceable to another capacity they share with people: vocal learning or mimicry. Indeed, Schachner’s group searched YouTube for videos of dancing animals. Of more than 1,000 videos that turned up, only those of vocal mimics – representing 14 parrot species and one species of elephant – showed evidence that they could really get into the groove. That dovetails with a notion proposed by Patel that “entrainment” or sustained movement to a musical beat relies on the brain circuitry for complex vocal learning, which requires a tight link between auditory and motor circuits in the brain, the scientists said. “A natural question about these results is whether they generalize to other parrots, or more broadly, to other vocal-learning species,” including songbirds, dolphins, elephants, and pinnipeds, a group including walruses and seals, Patel said. The findings in birds may offer new insight into humans’ relationship to music. “Why humans produce and enjoy music is an evolutionary puzzle,” Schachner’s team wrote. Debate continues over the idea that human musical capacity did not arise as a s result of direct evolutionary pressures, but indirectly, as a byproduct of pressures to improve other abilities. “By supporting the idea that entrainment emerged as a byproduct of vocal mimicry in avian species, the current findings lend plausibility to the idea that the human entrainment capacity evolved as a byproduct of our capacity for vocal mimicry,” the researchers wrote.