What do you, parrots and the ability to copy sounds you hear have in common? Well, apparently dance. A cockatoo named Snowball has been helping to shed light on rhythmic movements in animals and it’s connection to the capacity for vocal learning. The idea here is that our predilection for boogie has it’s roots in the tools we use to learn to speak. Vocal mimicry is a basic prerequisite for learning speech as you need to be able to co-ordinate your own muscle movements with sounds you hear in order to produce them yourself. This means that animals that have the capacity to mimic sounds are good at synchronizing movements to external stimuli, or keeping the beat.

As parrots tend to be known for their ability to reproduce a wide range of different noises including human speech it is reasonable to expect that they too might be moved by the rhythm. It turns out that this does indeed seem to be the case, Snowball apparently has a favourite song, “Everybody” by the Backstreet boys, to which he bobs his head and lifts his feet and sways side-to-side. To test whether Snowball was actually dancing to the beat or simply moving without any relation to the music this song was manipulated to change the number of beats per minute and played back to Snowball to see if he could match his movements to the new tempo.

While Snowball’s performance wouldn’t win any dance competitions there were enough periods where his movements synchronize with the music to show that he wasn’t just dancing by accident. While this sort of research might help us understand the development of music and dance in humans it may also have more practical applications in treatment of degenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease which may be helped by giving patients an external stimulus to synchronize their movements to. What do you know, dance is good for something.

Here you can watch Snowball rock on,

Further reading:

http://vesicle.nsi.edu/users/patel/Patel_Iversen_Bregman_Schulz_NYAS_in_press.pdf

http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,518494,00.html