Backstreet Boys Tattoo
Two famous parrots and a bevy of YouTube videos have now convinced scientists that people aren't the only ones who can groove to a musical beat.
Dancing has long been thought to be uniquely human. Toddlers will spontaneously bob along with music, but you never see dogs or cats listen to a tune and tap their tails in time.
So a couple of years ago, a neurobiologist named Aniruddh Patel was astonished when someone e-mailed him a link to a YouTube video of a sulfur-crested cockatoo named Snowball dancing to the Backstreet Boys.
"I said, you know, this is much more than just a cute pet trick. This is potentially scientifically very important, " recalls Patel, who studies music and the brain at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego.
Like A Cancan Girl
He got in touch with Snowball's owner, Irena Schulz. She runs Bird Lovers Only Rescue Service, a bird shelter in Indiana.
Schulz recalls that when Snowball's previous owner had dropped him off, he "also explained that Snowball dances." And along with Snowball, the man had brought the bird's favorite music.
Snowball Gets Down To Backstreet Boys
He put on the Backstreet Boys and Snowball started to get down like there was no tomorrow, says Schulz.
"It was incredible the way that he would lift his legs way up in the air, like a cancan girl, " she remembers.
Snowball swayed, he kicked, he bobbed his head — all in time with the music. Schulz put a video of the bird dancing online and it went viral, with millions of people watching him on YouTube.
"I felt like OK, this could be real, " says Patel. But he wanted to test Snowball to see if the bird could really adjust his movements to match a different beat. After all, maybe Snowball just did a trained routine at one tempo that just happened to go with certain songs.
Patel's group took Snowball's beloved Backstreet Boys song and manipulated it with a computer. They slowed it down and sped it up. They sent the modified music to Schulz, who played it for Snowball and videotaped his reactions.
The videos show that yes, the bird will match his moves to the beat. For the slower versions, he sways his entire body like a pendulum. But, Schulz says, when the music gets faster, "he understands to adjust his movements. If he's going to sway, don't sway as much, just bob your head."
And when the beat gets really fast and he doesn't have time to bring his leg all the way up and down, she says, "he'll keep his foot lifted up and he'll just, like, do his wave, he'll wave his foot."
More Than 5, 000 YouTube Videos
The results of this study are reported in the journal Current Biology, along with another scientific paper inspired by YouTube videos of dancing animals.
So you think your pet can dance? Post your evidence on YouTube... but make sure to tag them "nprpetdance."
Adena Schachner is a graduate student in the psychology department of Harvard University. She says she was familiar with the idea that some people had made videos of birds supposedly dancing. And back in 2007, when she got interested in this, a famous African Grey Parrot named Alex lived at a nearby animal cognition lab. So she and her colleagues created some new music, something no bird could have heard before, and they played it for Alex.