Not every song has its own specific dance, but there are certain tunes — from the tango to the Twist — that demand distinct moves. Now scientists have caught birds doing something similar: Male superb lyrebirds (Menura novaehollandiae) coordinate movement to the type of song they’re singing. The study appears in Current Biology.
Male superb lyrebirds sing and dance to attract the ladies, and their repertoire can contain more than 90 tunes. They don’t have such a big variety when it comes to dance moves, but with their elaborate tail feathers, these visual displays can be pretty spectacular. To study the song-and-dance combo, a group of Australian scientists filmed a dozen of these birds in Sherbrooke Forest in Dandenong Ranges National Park in Australia, east of the city of Melbourne.
Despite having such a large number of songs to choose from, only four tunes were accompanied by dance (you can see a video of one here); the researchers named those songs A, B, C, and D (not the most inventive names, but this is a scientific paper we’re dealing with). Each of these four dances had it’s own set of moves, the researchers write:
Our analysis revealed that each of the four song types within the display was associated with one particular gesture. The gesture accompanying song A consisted of steps, often to the side, with wings motionless and a wide tail. In contrast, the male’s tail was narrowed while he sang song types B and C, and during the latter he nearly always jumped or bobbed, and flapped his wings. When males sang song type D, the tail was usually wide and the legs and wings still.
“Just as we ‘waltz’ to waltz music but ‘salsa’ to salsa music, so lyrebirds step sideways with their tail spread out like a veil to one song—which sounds like a 1980s video-arcade game—while they jump and flap their wings with their tail in a mohawk position while singing a quiet ‘plinkety-plinkety-plinkety,’” study coauthor Anastasia Dalziell of Australian National University said in a statement.
While the lyrebirds sometimes sang each of these songs without dancing, they never danced without an accompanying tune. And occasionally, just like we do when dancing, the birds would mess up. The researchers say that this shows that the song-and-dance routine is difficult for the birds
How these birds develop their musical theater skills isn’t known, but the males spend years practicing before they reach the age of maturity. These skills are incredibly important, because females choose their mates after watching several males put on these displays. What the females are looking for, though, is still a mystery. Dalziell said, “Sometimes after what seems to me to be a perfectly wonderful display by a male, I watch a female leave and check out his neighbor.”
Images credit: Alex Maisey/Current Biology