Lyrebird song and dance routine

Friday, 07 June, 2013

During the final stages of a courtship dance for the ladies, male superb lyrebirds (Menura novaehollandiae) sing a repertoire of different songs and accompany each song with a unique dance choreography.

When male superb lyrebirds sing, they often move their bodies in a choreographed way. The findings add to evidence from human cultures around the world that music and dance are deeply intertwined activities. Photo: Alex Maisey.

Researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) captured the birds on video in the Dandenong Ranges in Victoria. During their courtship displays, males would sing four different song types, matching each song with a unique set of movements and delivering song and dance types in a predictable sequence.  

“Humans match their dance movements to [different] kinds of music; for example, we salsa to salsa music and dance ballet to ballet music,” said lead researcher Dr Anastasia Dalziell, who carried out the work during her PhD studies at the ANU. “We found that lyrebirds similarly match different dance movements to different songs.

“While singing song A - which sounds like a 1980s video game - a male lyrebird typically steps sidewise with his tail spread over his head like a veil; but when he sings song C he narrows his tail so it resembles a Mohawk, flaps his wings, and performs little jumps and bobs.”

These integrated song and dance routines had an additional layer of complexity. The birds performed their songs in a predictable order, always beginning with song A, then alternating between songs B and C, before finishing with song D.

The researchers also found that, just like humans, the lyrebirds sometimes made mistakes, dancing the ‘wrong’ dance move to the ‘wrong’ song, suggesting that coordinating song with dance is challenging.

Photo: Alex Maisey.

Dalziell said the degree of skill and memory required to coordinate complex song and dance numbers might act as an indicator for females to pick a Ricky Martin from the pack.

“These displays could be cognitively and physically demanding. Female lyrebirds are very picky and only the most accomplished males will impress,” she said.

The research was carried out in collaboration with researchers from La Trobe University and was published in Current Biology. 

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