Can Your Dog Cut a Rug? The DISCOVER Dancing Pet Challenge

By Veronique Greenwood | April 14, 2011 3:21 pm

Snowball the dancing, Backstreet Boys-loving cockatoo is more than a web meme: he is a scientific conundrum. Bobbing in time to music is a shockingly rare behavior, and even monkeys, capable of learning very complex tasks, find it impossible to get down to the beat even after more than a year of training. It’s marvelous evolutionary serendipity that humans dance, thinks neurobiologist Aniruddh Patel, who has found that our hearing system and motor control are intimately linked. In DISCOVER’s 2011 special issue on the brain, Patel discusses his idea that that animals needed a vocal-learning brain in order to get their groove on:

The implication is that dogs and cats can never do it, horses and chimps can never do it, but maybe other vocal-learning species can do it. I proposed that idea, but it was purely hypothetical until a few years after, when along came Snowball [in 2007].

But more importantly (drumroll), he issues a challenge:

If your pet really does have rhythm, he wants to know about it. “If someone has a dog that can dance to the beat, it will totally refute my hypothesis,” he says, “and that’s progress in science.”

If you think your pet proves Patel wrong, collect some video evidence, upload it to YouTube, and e-mail the link to webmaster@discovermagazine.com. We will post the best videos on May 1 (along with footage of Snowball shaking his groove thang).

  • Cat

    Have you seen the salsa dancing dog?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rRaPVTetseI

  • Alexa Fox

    You might get a video of a dog dancing to a beat, but it is meaningless if you can’t rule out the Clever Hans effect. If the dog is getting timing cues from a handler, there’s no proof that dog understands the concept of a beat. Most of the videos received will likely fall victim to this problem.

  • Idlewilde

    That bird screaming in the background sounds like a damned soul….wonder where it learned to scream like it was dying….

  • Nathan

    Actually I’ve seen quite many a video with birds bobbing in beat to the music. If this is rare, it may not entirely rare within the avian community (at least the parrot community anyway.) Especially since they are flock birds and rely on sound to locate each other within dense canopy.

  • Alex

    LOVE it. Also love the head-banging at the end.

    In related news, about 20 years ago, there was another Cockatoo dancing to the beat (I think it was on the Tonight Show). In that case though, it was to one of the Fat Boys (who happened to be on the show at the same time).

    @ Idlewilde: I think ALL parrots sound like that. Well, at least Amazons do. And especially the one who lived in my parents’ house for many years. Snowball aside, if you ever need an extra reminder of why exotic birds don’t make good pets, that’d be a great one.

  • Monica

    You can actually very clearly see the shadow of a human dancing energetically (starting at 1:08) in the bottom left hand corner of the screen. My best guess is to agree with Alexa as there is clear influence of the handler in this video.

  • Rockey

    Snowball was actually independently studied. Can’t find the full article but:

    http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2009/04/30/dancing-birds-rhythm.html

    “While Snowball danced away to different beats manipulated by the scientists, they coded his movements from video and discovered the cockatoo synchronized his head-banging, body swaying and foot tapping to musical rhythms far more often than mere chance would predict.”

  • Eric
  • Bill

    Have none of your responders ever seen bird mating dances?
    Watch a fascination of flamingoes.

  • Jumblepudding

    I wish dancing animals had better taste in music.

  • Jason

    Hmm… not dancing but this makes me think of that death metal band Hatebeak that has an African Grey as their lead singer. ^.^ (Since death metal is a genre where the ability to make noises like a damned soul is a mark of talent.)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hatebeak

  • Ethan

    @Monica: at that point in the video, the bird is looking towards the other side of the room anyway, so it doesn’t really matter what the human is doing.

  • http://www.propetfix.com/ Orange County Veterinarian

    Hmm isn’t there another animal dancing in the background? By the way Snowball seems to have inspired the movie Rio! He’s headbanging!

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