11:36am

Tue April 1, 2014
Krulwich Wonders...

The List Of Animals Who Can Truly, Really Dance Is Very Short. Who's On It?

Originally published on Wed April 2, 2014 1:05 pm

Remember Snowball, the dancing cockatoo? The parrot-like bird who became famous nodding and stamping to the Backstreet Boys tune, "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)" ? This is him ...

More than 5.6 million people have watched Snowball dance, but only one, Aniruddh Patel, made him dance 11 more times — as part of a science experiment. When Patel saw Snowball in 2007, he told the New York Times, his jaw "hit the floor." What delighted so many puzzled Patel, because parrots, it was widely thought, shouldn't be able to hold a beat.

Obviously lots of animals "move rhythmically." There are hundreds of them on YouTube: dogs, bears, cats, ferrets, horses, pigeons, squirrels, dolphins, fish, parrots. They stomp, bob, waggle, nod, jerk, but that's not true dancing, not as scientists define it.

Humans Can. The Other Animals Can't.

"Dancing" is an untutored, spontaneous response where the animal moves on the beat, matching motion to music. So the animal can't have a trainer. It can't have a human in the room whose moves it copies. It can't spend weeks exposed to the same tune. And when the music changes, it has to change with it, sticking to the beat. The "dance" is triggered by sound, but the moves come from inside — from circuits deep in the dancer's brain.

Patel, then a neurobiologist at the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, Calif., (now a professor at Tufts) wondered: What if dancing is, in fact, not something only humans do? And if parrots — with their very different brains — can dance, who else can?

Patel knew what he had to do. He had to meet this bird.

Does It Dance, Or 'Dance'?

Snowball, it turned out, was living in northern Indiana at an animal rescue center called Bird Lovers Only. He'd been placed there by a father whose daughter had just left for college. The family thought the bird (then around 6 years old) needed more attention, so they brought him to the shelter and brought along a Backstreet Boys CD. The dad told shelter director Irena Schulz to play it to Snowball "and see what happens."

Which Irena did.

As the world now knows, when she played "Everybody," Snowball, perched on the back of a chair, began strutting, Irena got a camera, videoed the bird, sent the tape to YouTube and, skip a beat, a few months later the phone rings and it's Ani, the professor from California. He tells her he can't believe this bird can actually dance. He says, "Let's design an experiment to see if this is real."

Irena, who had been a molecular biologist, says, "Yeah, let's."

Snowball Dances To 11 Different Versions

Using a computer program, the two of them made 11 different versions of "Everybody," all the same pitch, but different tempos, from 20 percent slower to 20 percent faster than the original.

They then played each version to Snowball. Snowball danced. The humans stayed quietly in the corner. The dances were captured on tape, and then Ani, Irena and two other scientists looked closely, wondering — did he stay on the beats, or no?

Well, So ... ?

In his book, Noah Strycker reports: "It wasn't a perfect match." Snowball sometimes bobbed ahead of the beat; sometimes, when the tempo slowed, he stopped dancing altogether. When they divided his performances into "on the beat" and "off the beat" sequences, Snowball was "off" about 75 percent of the time — which sounds very disappointing, like he wasn't really dancing. But oddly enough, that wasn't their conclusion.

When the team wrote its paper for Current Biology, they declared Snowball the first ever (scientifically validated) nonhuman Dancer.

The scientists said that being on the beat 25 percent of the time was not pure chance, or a random event. As Noah puts it, "The probability of Snowball displaying even as much synchronization as he did merely by chance was minuscule. That satisfied Patel."

In other words, Snowball was finding the beats on his own. He was not great at it, not a Michael Jackson. He was more like Elaine from Seinfeld (terrible), but what he was doing was good enough to be called Dance.

Who Else? Rhinos? Chimps? Owls?

Which immediately raised the next question: Who else can do this? Adena Schachner, then a psychology grad student at Harvard, went back to YouTube and started gathering. She amassed 5,000 video clips of different animals (very different — horses, cats, albatrosses, chimps, orangutans ... ), all purportedly dancing. And using the same analytical tools, after eliminating nonmusical, autonomic and overly trained contestants, she narrowed the field to 39 animals who seemed to be spontaneously moving to a beat.

Twenty-nine of them were parrots. So Snowball was not a one-of-a-kind genius. Fourteen different species of parrot produced real dancers. All the rest (the remaining four) were elephants. Asian elephants.

Whaaaat? How Could This Be?

This is so odd. One would think if we humans can do something, our closest relatives, chimps and orangutans, would be most likely to do it, too. What kind of trait skips from people to parrots to elephants and (as best we can tell) to nobody else?

Or put another way: What do people, parrots and elephants have that the rest of the animal kingdom doesn't? We have no answer. Not yet.

There are theories, of course, but this subject is so new, Snowball's performance so recent, Ani's paper and Adena's paper so provocative, the questions so fresh, all we can do — and yes, we do a lot of this here, but that's why science is fun — is ask more questions, and keep wondering ...


Noah Strycker's book The Thing With Feathers; The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human includes a full chapter on Snowball and the dancing question. Strycker reports that maybe "the secret of dance is [that it's] tied to an ability to mimic vocal sounds." There aren't a lot of animals who can mimic the sounds they hear, and the list: songbirds, parrots, hummingbirds, whales, dolphins, porpoises, walruses, seals, sea lions, elephants, some bats and humans, just happens to exclude our close cousins, the other apes. So maybe vocal mimicry — copying what we hear — is the gateway to dance. We shall see.

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