Can animals really dance to the beat?

  • Article by: ANNA NEWBY , Slate
  • Updated: February 28, 2014 - 1:50 PM
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Candy, a Malaccan Cockatoo

Dancing animals aren’t just a viral video sensation — they’re the subject of serious science.

Researchers have now specifically demonstrated the ability of cockatoos, bonobos, sea lions and other animals to not only extract a beat from music and follow it, but to adjust their movement if the tempo is changed.

At the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago, experts in various fields discussed “rhythmic entrainment of nonhuman animals.” In other words: We now have a chance of figuring out what’s behind all those dancing bird videos.

The ability to sense rhythm could help animals distinguish among sounds from different sources and help them synchronize their movements, which can improve perception by providing periods of silence.

In humans, according to Aniruddh Patel, a cognitive neuroscientist at Tufts, rhythmic beats activate a broad network of auditory and motor planning regions of the brain. Similar brain activity has been observed in animals.

Peter Cook, a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University who has closely observed a dancing sea lion named Ronan, writes: “The neural mechanisms underpinning flexible beat keeping may be much more widely distributed across the animal kingdom than previously thought.” The sea lion studies are especially interesting. For years, scientists have thought that animals’ “rhythmic entrainment” (the ability to synchronize with an external beat) was associated with vocal capacities to imitate sound. Sea lions are quite limited in the sounds they can make, which “poses a real problem for the theory that vocal mimicry is a necessary precondition for rhythmic entrainment,” according to Cook.

Mysteries remain, of course, but this body of research has important implications for evolutionary biology, animal communication systems and other fields of study. It also contributes to our understanding of the evolution of music among humans. Some researchers have studied the adaptive value of rhythm, noting that music has a social bonding function in humans. These animal studies take us a step closer toward understanding how the ability to sing and dance evolved. □

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