For videos of Snowball bopping to the Backstreet Boys,
Birds bust a move to musical beats 50 human volunteers. The birds syn-
chronized their movements about as
Studies suggest vocal mimics have a flair for moving in time well as volunteers tapped a button. The
researchers then analyzed thousands of
You Tube videos showing hundreds of
animal species moving to music. Signs
of entrainment to a beat appeared only
in vocal mimics, represented by 14 parrot
species and Asian elephants that moved
their trunks or legs in time with music.
Patel suspects that, as with people,
some parrots have rhythm to spare and
others can’t pick up a beat with a forklift.
Snowball’s dancing, it seems, has more in
common with boy band *NSYNC.
By Bruce Bower
Don’t begrudge Snowball his hankering
for boy bands. The sulfur-crested cockatoo with a spiky haircut bobs his head,
sways his body and stomps his feet in
time to the beat of pop songs such as the
Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody.”
Two new studies, published online
April 30 and slated to appear in Current
Biology, indicate that he and other parrots
can synchronize rhythmic movements to
musical beats. Until now, most researchers thought that only people align physical
movements to timed sounds, a phenomenon known as entrainment.
“This is the first evidence that there
could be an animal model of rhythm
perception in music,” says neuroscientist Aniruddh Patel of the Neurosciences
Institute in San Diego, who directed one
of the new investigations.
Patel proposes that brain circuitry for
vocal learning gets co-opted to support
musical-beat perception and synchronized movements to music: Animals that
can imitate sounds can also move in time
to a beat, but animals that can’t imitate
sounds can’t keep the beat.
Music’s origins remain a mystery. Some
regard music as a pleasurable by-product
of other mental skills, such as language.
Others suspect music arose as an evolutionary adaptation to Stone Age life,
perhaps to promote social cohesion.
“Even if entrainment emerged as a by-product of vocal mimicry, other parts of
music perception and cognition may
easily be adaptive,” says Harvard University’s Adena Schachner, a psychology graduate student who directed the
other new study.
Evidence of what amounts to a kind of
dancing to music by at least some parrot
species “comes as a big surprise,” remarks
W. Tecumseh Fitch of the University of
St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland.
In experiments conducted by Patel
and his team, Snowball listened to
“Everybody.” As the music sped up or
slowed down across a range of tempos
on different trials, Snowball frequently
adjusted his dancing to stay synchronized to the beat, Patel says.
Schachner’s group played familiar
and unfamiliar musical pieces to Snowball, to an African gray parrot named
Alex (before his death in 2007) and to
missed that tree
Newly found acacia common
in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region
By Susan Milius
Botanists couldn’t see the forest or the
trees. An acacia in eastern Africa that
grows up to 6 meters tall and dominates
the landscape across an area almost
three times the size of Rhode Island is
new to science.
“It’s astounding,” says David Mabberley
of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England. He summarizes the findings in the
April 24 Science, though the tree was officially named Acacia fumosa in the Nordic
Journal of Botany in September 2008.
Finding a new species in itself isn’t such
a surprise. Scientists describe and give
Latin names to some 10,000 new organisms a year. About 2,350 of these are flowering plants, with a new one from Africa
appearing on average every weekday.
What is surprising is that no specimens
or botanical mentions of the new acacia
existed even though it’s so widespread,
says Mats Thulin of Uppsala University
in Sweden, who named the plant.
Thulin says few botanists have explored
the acacia’s home in Ethiopia’s Somali
A recently discovered tree now named
Acacia fumosa (shown) dominates
thousands of square kilometers of the
limestone hills in eastern Africa.
National Regional State, or Ogaden. The
sparse population of the region is mostly
ethnic Somali, he says. The Ogaden
National Liberation Front is fighting for
independence and has made traveling to
the region perilous. Thulin, who spent 18
years as editor of Flora of Somalia, made a
trip to the area for the first time in 2006.
Almost immediately, Thulin says, he
recognized the acacia as an unknown
species. It has unusual smooth, gray
bark and bursts into pink, sweet-smell-ing blooms during the dry season.
With a bit of travel and some help from
Google Earth, Thulin realized how widespread the acacia is in its arid habitat.
The tree provides vegetation in a landscape too dry for perennial grasses.