Bonobos feel the beat

Studying these animals may tell us whether musical rhythm is widespread

IN SYNC  A bonobo, Pan paniscus, belongs to a species than can beat to a human drum.

Hans Hillewaert/Wikimedia Commons

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CHIGAGO – From a cockatoo bopping to the Backstreet Boys to a sea lion doing the boogie, nothing goes viral like an animal swaying to the music. Now, research shows that not only can bonobos feel the beat, they can play along.

Music “engages the brain in a way that no other stimulus can,” says cognitive psychologist Edward Large of the University of Connecticut in Storrs. He and Patricia Gray, a biomusic researcher at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, wanted to see if bonobos, which share 98.7 percent of their DNA with humans, might respond similarly to musical rhythms.

The researchers gave a group of bonobos access to a specially tailored drum, then showed them people drumming rhythmically. Eventually three animals picked up the beat and were able to match tempos with the scientists. Bonobos were also found to prefer a faster pace than most people.

Large and Gray presented their findings February 15 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting.

Rhythm involves the coordination of many brain areas, such as auditory and motor regions. Further research could help scientists understand whether only a few species can keep the beat, or if moving to the groove is widespread in the animal kingdom.

GOOD RHYTHM  Scientists have taught bonobos to drum to a rhythm. Future research could show whether more types of animals can keep the beat. Credit: Patricia Gray and Edward Large

Bethany was previously the staff writer at Science News for Students. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology from Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

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