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Watching YouTube Videos of Dancing Birds for the Sake of Science

80beatsBy Eliza StricklandMay 1, 2009 5:38 PM


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It may be the first example of a serious scientific study being launched by a viral video. Neuroscientist

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 [NPR].

Researchers had previously assumed that only humans move in time to a beat, but Snowball appeared to bob and rock to the rhythm just like any dancer. But Patel still wondered if the tail-shaking cockatoo had simply learned one dance routine that happened to synchronize to the Backstreet Boys song. For his study, published in Current Biology, Patel made slowed down and sped up versions of the song, and played them back to the bird while Snowball's owner videotaped the reaction. They found that Snowball did adjust his moves to match the tempo. At slower speeds the bird swayed rhythmically from side to side, and when the beats came fast and furious, the bird erupted into rapid head-bobbing. Patel's research was paired in Current Biology with a second study, in which cognitive psychologist Adena Schachner also started with YouTube. To determine which, if any, animals could move to a beat, she searched the site for "dancing" cats, dogs, monkeys, birds, and so forth.

She and her colleagues eventually analyzed more than 5,000 videos. "Imagine watching YouTube eight hours a day for a month," she says. "That's pretty much what we did. It was amusing for perhaps the first couple of hours." In the end, only 33 videos really seemed to show creatures moving with a beat. There were 14 different species of parrots and one elephant species [NPR].

Schachner's findings support Patel's theory of how musical appreciation arose.

In 2006, Patel proposed that brain circuitry for vocal learning gets co-opted to support musical-beat perception and synchronized movements to music. This would explain why humans and parrots can imitate sounds and move in time to a beat. But animals that can’t imitate sounds, including chimpanzees, monkeys, dogs and cats, can’t keep the beat. If Patel’s right, then other vocal mimics — including songbirds, dolphins, elephants, walruses and seals — should be able to get their groove on [Science News].

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