Remarkable dancing birds: a cure for Parkinson’s?

April 30, 2009 • 12:13 pm

In his various works, Darwin always thought that the roots of many human behaviors and emotions lay in our relatives.  So, for example, the rudiments of human morality could be seen in the social behaviors of our primate relatives.  But until now nobody has seen any animal with behavior indicating a predisposition to produce or respond to music.  Until now.  The newest issue of Current Biology has an article on two species in which individuals are able to move to a musical beat.  This behavior appears unique in the animal kingdom.  One bird is a sulfur-crested cockatoo,  “Snowball” (seen below), who really shakes a leg, and the other is Alex, an African grey parrot who moves his head to a beat. You can also see videos of both behaviors on the BBC Science page that reports on this phenomenon.

the authors conclude:

The discovery of synchronization to music in a nonhuman animal shows that a fundamental aspect of music cognition is shared with other species and provides valuable clues about the neurological substrates of this aspect of music. The finding also suggests the utility of developing animal models of movement to music. Such models could have relevance to the study of human movement disorders (including Parkinson’s disease), symptoms of which have been shown to be alleviated by moving with a musical beat.  More generally, it appears that comparative studies of other species can be a powerful approach for gaining insight into the neurobiological and evolutionary foundations of our own musical abilities.

Title, authors, and summary below.   Thanks to Matthew Cobb for calling this to my attention.


Experimental Evidence for Synchronization to a Musical Beat in a Nonhuman Animal

Aniruddh D. Patel1,,,John R. Iversen1,Micah R. Bregman1,2andIrena Schulz3

1 The Neurosciences Institute, 10640 John Jay Hopkins Drive, San Diego, CA 92121, USA
2 Department of Cognitive Science, University of California, San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, CA 92093, USA
3 Bird Lovers Only Rescue Service, P.O. Box 552, Dyer, IN 46311, USA

The tendency to move in rhythmic synchrony with a musical beat (e.g., via head bobbing, foot tapping, or dance) is a human universal [1] yet is not commonly observed in other species [2]. Does this ability reflect a brain specialization for music cognition, or does it build on neural circuitry that ordinarily serves other functions? According to the vocal learning and rhythmic synchronization hypothesis [3], entrainment to a musical beat relies on the neural circuitry for complex vocal learning, an ability that requires a tight link between auditory and motor circuits in the brain [4,5]. This hypothesis predicts that only vocal learning species (such as humans and some birds, cetaceans, and pinnipeds, but not nonhuman primates) are capable of synchronizing movements to a musical beat. Here we report experimental evidence for synchronization to a beat in a sulphur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita eleonora). By manipulating the tempo of a musical excerpt across a wide range, we show that the animal spontaneously adjusts the tempo of its rhythmic movements to stay synchronized with the beat. These findings indicate that synchronization to a musical beat is not uniquely human and suggest that animal models can provide insights into the neurobiology and evolution of human music [6].


6 thoughts on “Remarkable dancing birds: a cure for Parkinson’s?

  1. A recent article in Nature by Bolhuis & Wynne (Nature, 16 April 2009, p. 832) compared the mental feats of humans, chimps & birds with some interesting conclusions:

    “…birds are capable of feats that match or even exceed those reported in monkeys and apes…The appearance of similar abilities in distantly related species, but not necessarily in closely related ones, illustrates that cognitive traits cannot be neatly arranged on an evolutionary scale of relatedness.”

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