This Baby Gorilla Is a Pretty Good Dancer, Even If It Doesn’t Understand Rhythm

Photo: Enjoylife2/Getty Images

There are two kinds of terrible dancers in this world: the ones who hover uncomfortably at the edges of the dance floor, limply wagging their fingers in the air in time to their own internal chants of please, god, can I leave yet?, and the ones who just say screw it and toss up their arms and throw around their bodies with abandon.

This is Lope, a 3-year-old silverback gorilla at the Twycross Zoo in Leicestershire, England. Lope is decidedly in the latter camp:

Earlier this week, a local BBC station posted this video, taken by one of the zoo’s visitors, on its Facebook page; the next day, it was reposted to the BBC website under the headline “Dancing gorilla from Twycross Zoo goes viral.” As of this morning, more than a million people have gotten a glimpse of Lope’s sweet moves.

Or a glimpse of something, anyway. There’s plenty of debate about whether any animal species actually has the rhythmic sense than dancing — defined as spontaneous movement in time to a beat — requires. (Many animals can be trained to copy a set of movements, but that’s not the same as the ability to generate the movement independently.)

One of the most well-known, and well-studied, examples of a dancing animal may be a male cockatoo named Snowball. An article in Quanta last month told the (delightful) story of how Snowball’s owner, a woman named Irena Schulz, discovered the bird’s unexpected talent:

Later that evening, she and her husband popped Spudic’s CD into the computer in their living room. “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” by The Backstreet Boys started playing. Immediately, Snowball, who was perched on Schulz’s arm, began kicking up his feet and bouncing his head with great zeal — and precision. His movements were synced with the beat. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Schulz said. “This bird was like a choreographed phenomenon. He wasn’t just picking up his leg and gingerly putting it down. He was literally foot stomping. I thought, ‘My god — the bird is enjoying this.’”

There are a few different schools of thought here. Research on Snowball has been used to support the vocal-learning hypothesis, or the idea that animals can keep a beat if they also have the ability to mimic new sounds. Humans, birds, and elephants all fit that description; non-human primates don’t.

But as the Quanta piece notes, researchers have since demonstrated that chimpanzees and bonobos (and one very talented sea lion) may understand rhythm, too. And in the past few years, another idea has emerged to challenge the vocal-learning hypothesis: In 2014, a paper published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience made the case for an alternative called the “gradual audiomotor evolution hypothesis,” which holds that non-human primates can have a limited beat-keeping ability – monkeys, for example, can synchronize their movements with one another – but nothing as sophisticated as humans’ sense of rhythm.

The bottom line: Lope’s dance, as charming as it may be, probably isn’t actually a dance at all. You know who doesn’t care, though? Lope, who’s too busy twirling in dreamy, adorable circles across your screen.

Do Animals Understand Rhythm Enough to Dance?