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I Can’t Shut Up About How Rats Can Dance

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

There are plenty of reasons why rats are terrible. They’re always scurrying around, which is the most disgusting way for an animal to move. Their tails are too long and pink (indecent), and they’ve all but taken over New York. So much so that, while announcing plans to deal with the city’s worsening rodent infestation, New York Sanitation commissioner Jessica Tisch had to remind everyone, “The rats don’t run this city. We do.” However, a new study from the University of Tokyo has revealed something about these these godforsaken creatures that is, at the very least, respectable: Rats have rhythm.

“Rats displayed innate — that is, without any training or prior exposure to music — beat synchronization,” said study co-author Hirokazu Takahashi. When researchers played music, the rats jerked their head in sync with the beat, an ability previously believed to be unique to humans. The rats may not run this city, but they can dance just like you and me, baby!

This recent study observed ten rats — and 20 humans, for comparison — fitting them with wireless accelerometers to measure head movement. Over three consecutive days, researchers played the rats five different pieces of music, focusing primarily on Mozart’s “Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major (K. 448).” The rats were played minute-long excerpts from the classical composition at four different tempos: 75 percent, 100 percent, 200 percent, and 400 percent of the original speed. The rats, like the human participants, displayed the most distinct beat synchronization when the song was played at 120 to 140 bpm, which is closest to the song’s original 132 bpm. I tried listening to Mozart at four times the original speed and almost got motion sickness. So, rats have good taste, but we already knew that.

How does one make a scientific decision as to what music is best suited for rodents? That remains unclear, but for this study, the four other songs researchers played were “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga, “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen, “Beat It” by Michael Jackson, and “Sugar” by Maroon 5. I have many questions, and they are all about the Maroon 5 song. The five pieces of music were played twice at random — listening to “Sugar” thrice would have been considered animal cruelty — making for about a 45-minute music session for the rats. Could the study have been completed even quicker had the researchers simply played “Cuff It” by Beyoncé, the ultimate test of whether someone has rhythm? I suppose we’ll never know.

Scientists have long been desperate to make animals dance. Previous studies, focused primarily on primates, have found that chimpanzees and bonobos display a limited ability to keep rhythm. A 2014 study also found a California sea lion that could keep a beat. (This video of a baby gorilla twirling isn’t definitive proof of an ape’s ability to dance, but it is gorgeous.) In this new study, researchers found that while the rats’ movement may have been reactive rather than predictive — no rodent was really anticipating the beat — their movement was not solely a result of being startled by the noise. Rats do not dance with fear in their hearts.

I say we give the rats little top hats and tap shoes and just see what happens. Can rats resist the “Cha Cha Slide”? Should we show them how to do the lift from Dirty Dancing? Are they also planning on watching Magic Mike’s Last Dance? If nothing else, the next time a rat runs across your foot on the subway, you can tell yourself that it was just its disgusting little way of asking you to dance.

I Can’t Shut Up About How Rats Can Dance