New research shows that Snowball the sulfur-crested cockatoo moves in time to musical beats, an ability long attributed only to people.
|Aniruddh D. Patel, John R. Iversen, Micah R. Bregman, and Irena Schulz|
The idea for a science experiment can come from an unusual
place. After watching a YouTube video of a dancing bird named Snowball, a
scientist in California decided
to study the ability of animals to keep the beat.
Bird lovers have long claimed that their pets have rhythm,
and there are many videos of dancing birds online. Until now, scientists have suspected
that humans are the only animals that can accurately keep rhythm with music.
“Scientists have claimed that this capacity is uniquely
human for several decades,” says W. Tecumseh Fitch, a psychologist at the University
of St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland.
Thanks to Snowball, that scientific opinion is changing. Snowball
is a cockatoo, a kind of parrot, and his favorite song is “Everybody” by the Backstreet
Boys. When he hears the song, he stomps his feet and sways his body with the
tempo, or pace of the music, as though he is the only bird member of the boy band.
Aniruddh Patel is a neuroscientist, or a scientist who
studies how the brain and the nervous system contribute to learning, seeing and
other mental abilities. He works at the The Neurosciences Institute in San
Diego. After seeing Snowball’s dance moves online, Patel
visited the cockatoo at the bird rescue facility he’s called home for two
years. The scientist played “Everybody” for Snowball and also played versions
of the song that were sped up or slowed down. Sometimes, Snowball danced too
fast or too slowly. Often, when there was a change in tempo, Snowball adjusted
his dancing to match the rhythm. In other experiments, scientists have observed
the same abilities in preschool children.
Patel isn’t the only scientist who has studied Snowball’s
moves. Adena Schachner, who studies psychology at Harvard
University, also wanted to know
more about the dancing bird. Schachner’s team played different musical pieces for
Snowball and a parrot named Alex, as well as eight human volunteers. The
scientists observed that the birds and the humans kept time to the music with
about the same accuracy.
Schachner and her team didn’t stop with the birds. She and
her colleagues watched thousands of YouTube videos of different animals moving
to music. Not all the animals could dance, however. From watching the videos,
the scientists observed that only animals that imitate sounds, including 14
parrot species and Asian elephants, accurately moved in time to music.
Patel suspects that the ability to keep time with music is
connected in the brain to the ability to imitate sounds. If Patel is correct,
then animals like songbirds, dolphins, elephants, walruses and seals should
also be able to dance.
Researchers don’t know how music came into existence. Some
scientists think the origins of music are tied to mental skills like language
development. Others wonder if music came about during the Stone Age, roughly
2.5 million years ago to 10,000 years ago, as a way to build social skills. Now
scientists know that even newborn babies can recognize rhythm.
The ability to move one’s body in time with music is called
entrainment, and scientists have a number of different theories for why people
dance. By studying the brains of dancing birds like Snowball, scientists may
start to figure out the science of dancing.
Power words: (adapted from the Yahoo! Kids Dictionary)
tempo: The speed
at which music is or ought to be played.
pattern of musical movement through time, or a specific kind of such a pattern,
formed by a series of notes differing in length and emphasis
of the sciences that deal with the nervous system.
nervous system: a
collection of cells and tissues (a group of cells working together) that
regulates the actions and responses of backboned and many backbone-less
science that deals with mental processes and behavior.
Snowball, a sulfur-crested cockatoo, bobs his head, sways his body and stomps his feet to a percussive musical tune. Experiments indicate that Snowball is able to synchronize his movements to a musical beat, challenging the longstanding belief that only people can dance in this way.
SHAKE A TAIL FEATHER
Alex the African gray parrot takes a cool, head-bobbing approach to moving with the music, whereas Snowball fiercely stomps out the beat to Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust.”