Is It Too Late To Change My Thesis Project?

Prior to this weekend, I would have been slightly embarrassed to admit that I’m captivated by YouTube videos of dancing animals. There’s something about the combination of bubbly pop music and beat-bouncing pets that is irresistible to watch.

I always thought I was just a sucker for cute animals, but now, thanks to the people at NPR’s Science Friday, I can say it’s all in the name of science.

If you haven’t heard about Snowball, a boy-band loving sulfur-crested cockatoo from Indiana, and if you like the idea of grad students mining YouTube for data, then this is the viral video for you.

Three scientists from UC San Diego tracked down the avian dancing sensation after noticing that he seemed to move to the beat of a fast-paced song by the Backstreet Boys. The bird’s head bobs, his body sways, and his legs kick in what looks like an enthusiastic mating ritual, but, as the scientists conclude, is actually a deliberate and measured response to the music. In other words, not only can Snowball dance, he’s got rhythm too.

The ability to move to a musical beat is very uncommon in animals; in fact, humans (myself not included) and vocal birds (like parrots and cockatoos) seem to be the only ones that can do it. One current hypothesis suggests that vocal-learning animals are able to dance because they already have the brain circuitry in place for speech (which also relies on coordination between the ears, brain, and body).

If our ability to link sound with movement is just the happy byproduct of the brain power required for speech, then it’s likely that dogs, cats, and monkeys will never be able to dance with Snowball to the Backstreet Boys.

This is probably a good thing, though… otherwise, I’d be spending way too much time on YouTube.

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~ by Meghan on May 4, 2009.

6 Responses to “Is It Too Late To Change My Thesis Project?”

  1. Is the theory that it is the ability to learn language that confers, uh, rhythm? Because that makes me wonder about stuff like this:
    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5503685
    and this:
    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1952976
    I can’t imagine a dog dancing, though.

    Also, what about dolphins? Not entirely on topic but this is so cool:
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=eavesdropping-on-dolphins-09-01-14

  2. I think the key here is ‘vocal language’. So, even though non-human primates and other animals (dogs, prairie dogs, etc.) have the ability to understand language and communicate, they don’t have the same set of linguistic tools necessary for ‘beat perception and synchronization’ (as the authors label it). It interesting that you bring up dolphins though, because the authors also thought that the study should be expanded to look at dolphins and seals. Neat, huh!

  3. I do that exact same dance move

  4. When you’re dancing to the Backstreet Boys? 🙂

  5. That bird has way better dance moves than I do!

  6. Snowball is so cute. I love that he seems to feel compelled to move to the beet. Can you imagine if everyone did that when they heard music? What a fun and crazy world 🙂

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