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See Inside September / October 2009

Bird Moves: Dancing with the Starlings

Birds' rhythmic abilities offer clues to the origins of dance

Researchers have long assumed that humans were the only animals that could dance—even our close primate relatives cannot keep a steady beat or be taught to move to a rhythm. But new evidence shows that birds can dance, revealing that the mysterious ability could be a by-product of vocal learning.

Aniruddh Patel of the Neurosciences Institute, Adena Schachner of Harvard University and their colleagues studied several birds, among them a cockatoo that dances to the Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody.” When Patel sped up or slowed down the song, the bird adjusted its moves to match the tempo, eliminating the possibility that it was in sync with the music by chance. Intrigued, Schachner and her colleagues started search­ing YouTube for videos of other dancing animals. They found 15 bopping species (14 parrot and one elephant) that also share an additional trait: the capability to imitate sounds. That correla­tion suggests our musical ability grew out of the vocal learning system instead of being “a special-purpose ability,” Patel says.

The findings could help advance research on movement disorders, he adds. Hearing music helps Parkinson’s patients to walk, for example. So far scientists do not understand the underlying mechanisms, but if bird brains share certain key circuits with humans, then scientists may find answers by studying them.

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Dancing with the Starlings."

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