Humans aren't alone in grooving to the music

Tuesday 11 June 2013
A male superb lyrebird shows off to the ladies. Photo by Alex Maisey

While showing off to the ladies, male lyrebirds coordinate song with dance, creating a display of a level of sophistication previously only known in humans.

Video footage of superb lyrebirds dancing in the Dandenong Ranges in Victoria revealed that during the final stage of courtship males sing several different songs, accompanying each with a unique dance choreography.

“Humans match their dance movements to kinds of music: for example we salsa to salsa music and dance ballet to ballet music,” said lead researcher Dr Anastasia Dalziell, who carried out the work during her PhD studies at the Research School of Biology.

“We found that lyrebirds similarly match different dance movements to different songs.

“While singing song A – which sounds like a 1980s video game – a male lyrebird typically steps sidewise with his tail spread over his head like a veil; but when he sings song C he narrows his tail so it resembles a mohawk, flaps his wings, and performs little jumps and bobs.”

These integrated song and dance routines had an additional layer of complexity: the birds performed their songs in a predictable order, always beginning with song A, then alternating between songs B and C, before finishing with song D.

The researchers also found that, just like humans, the lyrebirds sometimes made mistakes, dancing the ‘wrong’ dance move to the ‘wrong’ song, suggesting that coordinating song with dance is challenging.

Dr Dalziell says the degree of skill and memory required to coordinate complex song and dance numbers might act as an indicator for females to pick a Ricky Martin from the pack.

“These displays could be cognitively and physically demanding. Female lyrebirds are very picky and only the most accomplished males will impress,” she said.

Dr Anastasia Dalziell is a Visiting Fellow in the Magrath Lab at the Research School of Biology, ANU.

See original ANU Media release article.

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