Boogie birdie: Animals shown to 'dance' to music

ByABC News
May 2, 2009, 1:25 AM

NEW YORK -- They wouldn't blow away the competition on "Dancing with the Stars," but it turns out that some birds got rhythm. After studying a cockatoo that grooves to the Backstreet Boys and about 1,000 YouTube videos, scientists say they've documented for the first time that some animals "dance" to a musical beat.

The results support a theory for why the human brain is wired for dancing.

In lab studies of two parrots and close review of the YouTube videos, scientists looked for signs that animals were actually feeling the beat of music they heard.

The verdict: Some parrots did, and maybe an occasional elephant. But researchers found no evidence of that for dogs and cats, despite long exposure to people and music, nor for chimps, our closest living relatives.

Why? The truly boppin' animals shared with people some ability to mimic sounds they hear, the researchers say. (Even elephants can do that). The brain circuitry for that ability lets people learn to talk, and evidently also to dance or tap their toes to music, suggests Aniruddh Patel of The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego. He proposed the music connection in 2006.

He also led a study of Snowball that was published online Thursday by the journal Current Biology.

A separate YouTube study, also published Thursday by the journal, was led by Adena Schachner, a graduate student in psychology at Harvard. In sum, the new research "definitely gives us a bit of insight into why and how humans became able to dance," Schachner said.

A video of Snowball bobbing his head and kicking like a little Rockette to music has been viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube since it was posted in 2007. Patel saw it after a colleague pointed it out.

"I was very impressed," Patel said. So he collaborated with Snowball's owner in Indiana for a more formal test. That showed Snowball wasn't just mimicking the movements of somebody off-camera. And Snowball's movements followed the beat of his favorite Backstreet Boys song, "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)" even when researchers sped up the tune and slowed it down.