Like Humans Waltz And Polka, Lyrebirds Match Dance To Tune

lyrebird1Not 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.

lyrebird2While 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

Male Lions Are Ambush Hunters

LionsFemale lions are known to be great hunters, cooperating to bring down their prey. Male lions, in contrast, have reputations for being great moochers, living off the kills of the females in their prides. That reputation is undeserved — males do indeed hunt — but it seems that they take a different hunting tactic, finds a study published in Animal Behaviour.

Researchers from the Carnegie Institution of Science in Stanford, California, and the University of Pretoria in South Africa matched airborne measurements of vegetation cover in South Africa’s Kruger National Park with GPS telemetry of lion kills. They found that male lions tended to kill in areas that had shorter lines-of-sight than where they rested (lions, being cats, spend most of their time resting), especially at night. But there was no difference with females.

They concluded that the male lions were taking advantage of areas with lots of vegetative cover to ambush their prey. That difference in technique likely helps male lions to be as successful in their hunting as the females that are using the high-success strategy of cooperation.

Reading through the paper, I wonder if the finding might also account for the males’ undeserved reputation for laziness. Lion studies are much easier in open lands like the Serengeti, and it’s in those places where females’ cooperation is especially noticeable. If the males were hunting off in the brush where scientists weren’t looking, no one would have noticed that the males’ ambush tactics.

But more importantly, the scientists say, the finding might have implications for the management of parks and other wildlife areas.

“By strongly linking male lion hunting behavior to dense vegetation, this study suggests that changes to vegetation structure, such as through fire management, could greatly alter the balance of predators and prey,” study co-author Scott Loarie, of the Carnegie Institution of Science, said in a statement.

Image of lions in Kruger National Park courtesy of flickr user jon|k