Bonobos, like humans, keep time to music - study

CHICAGO Sun Feb 16, 2014 12:01pm IST

A bonobo lies at the world's only sanctuary for the endangered great ape at Lola Ya Bonobo just outside Congo's capital Kinshasa, July 31, 2010. REUTERS/Katrina Manson/Files

A bonobo lies at the world's only sanctuary for the endangered great ape at Lola Ya Bonobo just outside Congo's capital Kinshasa, July 31, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Katrina Manson/Files

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Some animals, like humans, can sense and respond to a musical beat, a finding that has implications for understanding how the skill evolved, scientists said on Saturday.

A study of bonobos, closely related to chimpanzees, shows they have an innate ability to match tempo and synchronize a beat with human experimenters.

For the study, researchers designed a highly resonate, bonobo-friendly drum able to withstand 500 pounds of jumping pressure, chewing, and other ape-like behaviors.

"Bonobos are very attuned to sound. They hear above our range of hearing," said Patricia Gray, a biomusic program director at University of North Carolina in Greensboro.

Experimenters beat a drum at a tempo favored by bonobos - roughly 280 beats per minute, or the cadence that humans speak syllables. The apes picked up the beat and synchronized using the bonobo drum, Gray and psychologist Edward Large, with the University of Connecticut, said at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"It's not music, but we're slowing moving in that direction," Large said.

Related research on a rescued sea lion, which has no innate rhythmic ability, shows that with training, it could bob its head in time with music, said comparative psychologist Peter Cook, who began working with Ronan the sea lion while a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Scientists suspect that the musical and rhythmic abilities of humans evolved to strengthen social bonds, "so, one might think that a common ancestor to humans and the bonobo would have some of these capabilities," Large said.

The addition of sea lions to the list suggests that the ability to sense rhythm may be more widespread.

Gray and Large said they would like to conduct a study on whether bonobos in the wild synchronize with other members of their species when they, for example, beat on hollow trees.

"That's really coordination. Now, you're talking about a social interaction," Large said. "If your brain rhythms are literally able to synchronize to someone else's brain rhythms, that's what communication is potentially all about."

Gray and Large's research was conducted at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens in Florida.

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