Why we’ve got more in common with parrots than chimpanzees – iNews

Chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos may be our closest relatives on the evolutionary tree of life but we have much more in common with parrots, according to a new book.
Apart from their knack of parroting back profanities and phrases they have learned at the most inopportune moments, parrots have been spotted dancing for fun, producing rhythmic drumming with sticks or nuts and behaving in a spiteful and vindictive manner.
In one extreme case involving 30 years of lab training – Alex the African Grey Parrot was taught over 100 words which he used consistently, appropriately and in coherent phrases, giving him the linguistic ability of a toddler when he died in 2007 at the age of 31.
And, even more impressively, he would ask questions, such as ‘what colour?’ – displaying frustration when the answers were not forthcoming or were obviously wrong.
So we know he was really asking questions rather than repeating things he had heard.
Parrots can live to be more than a hundred, share knowledge with each other and favour close-knit, monogamous family structures – all of which suggests that they, rather the chimpanzees, are our closest animal ‘relative’, argues the American academic, Antone Martinho-Truswell, in his new book ‘The Parrot in the Mirror’.
“The use of a tool to produce a rhythm that is related to attracting a mate is such a human and complex system of behaviours,” he says of the activity he believes links us to parrots more closely than any other.
“Rhythmic drumming is not something that even our fellow great apes do. It is perhaps the very core of our human obsession with music, our earliest instrumentation, that is shared by all human cultures and people. And it is shared with only one animal,” he said.
Professor Aniruddh Patel, at Tufts University in Massachusetts, who in 2009 declared a cockatoo named Snowball to be the first scientifically confirmed dancing animal (see box), agrees that parrots and humans have an unusually close bond.
“Humans and parrots are very distantly related among vertebrates. Yet we have something in common that we don’t share with our closest living relatives – chimpanzees and gorillas,” he says.
“That is, complex vocal learning – the ability to learn to produce complex new sounds based on our auditory experience. I believe this is related to the fact that parrots and humans are the only animals known to spontaneously learn to move to the beat of rhythmic music.”
Given our similarity, there is much parrots can teach us about our own lives, argues Dr Martinho-Truswell, who works at Sydney University but also has a position at Oxford University.
“We can learn a great deal about ourselves by thinking of ourselves as ‘parrots without feathers’,” he says.
He says that our extraordinary similarity to parrots, in fundamental evolutionary terms, is in stark contrast to the extraordinarily different habitats we occupy and lifestyles we lead. This, in turn, highlights just how ‘wrong’ – in evolutionary terms – so many aspects of modern life are for humans – whose lives were not so far removed from those of the parrots just 100,000 years ago.
But since then, while the life of the average parrot has stayed more or less the same, ours have changed beyond all recognition – far outstripping our evolutionary ability to keep up, he argues.
In 2007, Snowball, asulphur-crested cockatoo, became an internet sensation after being videoed dancing to the music of the Backstreet Boys. The bopping caught the eye of Professor Annirudddh Patel, at Tufts University in Massachusetts, who played Snowball 11 modified versions of the song he had danced to, slowed down or sped up to change the tempo, and filmed his dancing. With no-one watching, Snowball danced, not for reward or attention but for the sheer fun of it.
Professor Patel’s team declared Snowball the first scientifically confirmed dancing animal in 2009.
“Many species of birds dance as part of courtship displays in nature. We know that songbirds activate pleasure circuits in their brain when they sing, so birds that dance as part of courtship likely experience some pleasure in this behavior. But parrots are the only animals known (so far) who spontaneously dance to the beat of human music,” Professor Patel said.
A follow-up study conducted a few years later showed that Snowball had at least 14 different dance moves he used, speeding them up and varying them in different combinations as the mood struck.
Stomping, swaying, head-bobbing and many other rhythmic movements all combined to make unique dances.
“We tend to think that we’ve changed. But the reality is that the whole history of modern homo sapiens is only 100,000 years old – and that’s an absolute blink of an eye, evolutionarily speaking,” Martinho-Truswell says.
“We haven’t had much of a chance to evolve to cope with different conditions from what we first evolved to cope with in the Rift valley [in East Africa]. And so a lot of when we feel ill at ease with modern life, when we feel it’s too fast, that we’re not coping with the way that we live these days – that comes from the fact that we really are not living the life that we were evolved to live,” he said.
Against this backdrop, it’s no surprise that as life gets faster and technology more prevalent that people are increasingly turning to mindfulness, meditation and activities to slow things down – in essence, an attempt to take them closer to the lives we lived thousands of years ago, Martinho-Truswell argues.
“Some of the mental health problems we have, particularly the ones relating to social interaction, such as social anxiety, are not unrelated to the fact that we have a suite of onboard coping mechanisms and behaviours that are evolved for a vastly different social sphere,” he said.
“I’m not advocating that we go out and live in the jungle but I think that we need to understand ourselves if we are to understand why we feel the way we do about our society and wilderness so that we can address these issues.”
For anyone inspired to buy a parrot, however, Professor Patel has this warning.
“Parrots are very demanding pets. It’s said they have the personality – and tantrums – of a 2 to 3 year-old human, and they live for 50 years. That’s why many end up at bird shelters after people give them up.”
“Also, many don’t develop into dancers when growing up around human music. So enjoy the videos of dancing parrots online, but don’t get a parrot just because you want to see your pet dancing.”
The Parrot in the Mirror: How evolving to be like birds made us human by Antone Martinho-Truswell is published on March 10 by Oxford University Press, £18.99
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