Research Report: Bird ‘dancing’ to music may be a first



A YouTube video of a “dancing” bird caught the attention of researchers at The Neurosciences Institute and has led to a remarkable discovery. Dancing, or synchronized rhythmic movement in time with a musical beat, was thought until now to be a uniquely human trait.

To test whether a sulphur-crested cockatoo named Snowball was truly responding to music, the team prepared versions of a song by the Backstreet Boys with a wide range of beat speeds.

Analysis of videos showed that Snowball changed his dancing speed to match the altered beats. Cockatoos are well known for their ability to imitate complex sounds. Scientists believe the evolution of auditory and motor systems that allow vocal learning by cockatoos also convey an ability to dance.

These findings raise new questions about the biological bases of music and suggest new ways to expand our knowledge of how the brain works.

Synthesis simplified

Terpenes are an important chemical class of hydrocarbons found in numerous biological and commercial products, from vitamin A to the cancer drug Taxol. But, synthesizing sufficient quantities of terpenes required for commercial or research purposes has proven difficult.

A Scripps Research Institute team has devised a new terpene-production method.

Instead of starting with a chemical end product and working backwards along a linear path of simpler and simpler compounds (a process known as retrosynthesis), the team create a “retrosynthesis pyramid” that places the highest oxidized target at the top.

Not unlike a chess puzzle, multiple molecules are considered at every descending level of oxidation until arriving at the most logical starting material for ease of synthesis.

The Scripps Research team describes the new technique, and its application in synthesizing five terpenes, in the online issue of Nature.

Disease in families

Family members of children diagnosed with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) should be considered at high risk for the disease and tested for it as part of a routine medical examination, even if they don’t show symptoms, according to a recent study by researchers at the UCSD School of Medicine.

The research team studied 44 children with and without NAFLD and 152 family members of these children. They found that whether or not a person had NAFLD was highly heritable.

In family members of children with NAFLD, it was present in 59 percent of siblings and 78 percent of parents. In most cases the person did not know that they had the disease. In a few cases the disease was already very advanced even in the absence of symptoms.

The results appear in the May edition of the journal Gastroenterology and are considered an important step in building the case that NAFLD is a genetic disease.