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Physical Chemistry


Dancing feet and gecko toes

by Sydney Smith
March 10, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 9


Groove is a feeling

A disco ball, whose mirrors reflect blue, red, pink, and purple light, hangs from a blue-and-red-lit ceiling.
Credit: Shutterstock
Dancing for science: You can't hear it, but you can feel it.

On the dance floor, the warmth of a “disco inferno” can certainly be felt, even when its flames are invisible. At least that’s what a recent study on inaudible bass and dancing found.

Dance floor science is one subject of study at LIVELab, a unique fusion of performance hall and research facility, which is part of the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind. Centered on exploring the interplay of science and the arts, LIVELab has the capability to manipulate acoustics in real time while recording the motion and physiological responses of both performers and audience members.

Recently, LIVELab hosted an electronic music concert to study whether deep bass contributes to groove, even if inaudible. Every 2.5 min of the continuous 55 min concert, the researchers dropped a beat so low— 8–37 Hz—that it was below the range of human hearing. The lucky dance floor participants, fitted with headbands marked for motion capture, moved nearly 12% more during the inaudible beats than when only the audible music was playing.

This funky finding suggests that the imperceptible deep bass had an unconscious effect on dancing intensity. The scientists suspect that the very low frequencies’ subtle influence relates to the body’s senses of balance and vibration rather than conscious thought (Curr. Biol. 2022, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2022.09.035).

It seems that the body might sense it’s time to disco before the mind does. As the Bee Gees sang, “On the waves of the air, there is dancin’ out there.”


Gecko discotheque

A grayish-blue gecko with bright orange patches and an expression resembling a smile.
Credit: Shutterstock
Leapin' lizards: Geckos have plenty to smile about, including their extraordinary noses and toes.

Tokay geckos might not be able to raise the dance hall roof, but they could probably reach it. And they might even be able to skitter across the disco ball once they got there.

Although van der Waals forces often get the credit for geckos’ acrobatic skills, the animals’ agility also arises from the flexible, hierarchical arrangement and coordination of their toes and feet, a study found (Proc. R. Soc. B 2020, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2020.0123).

Researchers built racetracks for running vertically and sideways along the wall. Some tracks included obstacles such as slippery patches or grate-like rods.

The geckos’ toe maneuvers didn’t miss a beat. For every track orientation and hurdle, the creatures’ appendages actively compensated for the change in gravity, friction, or bumpiness by swiftly redistributing their toes to maintain the shear force to stay on track.

In addition to dancing feet, tokay geckos have noses that might recognize one another across a dark dance floor. They may even be able to differentiate their own smell from others’.

To investigate whether tokay geckos have true self-recognition, researchers at the University of Bern developed a cotton swab sniff test. It might sound fun, but Newscripts wouldn’t recommend it. The scientists doused cotton swabs with water, peppermint oil, and gecko odors—including skin lipids and feces. The animal scents were from the gecko being tested or, separately, an unfamiliar gecko housed in another room.

The researchers presented the swabs to a gecko and recorded its reactions. The focus was on tongue flicks, which are essentially gecko sniffs, and whether any were directed toward the swab or the ground. Tongue flicks aimed at the ground were considered to be toward the animal’s own smell, with which its housing was saturated. Water acted as the control and peppermint oil as a test for novelty effects, though after an initial week of the geckos trying to eat the swabs, novelty didn’t seem to be at play.

When presented with a swab bearing their own odor, the creatures flicked their tongues at the swab more often than at the ground. When presented with the odor of a stranger gecko, the test subjects aimed more of their tongue flicks at the ground than at the swab. The scientists interpreted this behavior as a comparison of their own scent with that of the other gecko and, they write, as “some evidence necessary for true self-recognition” (Anim. Cognit. 2023, DOI: 10.1007/s10071-023-01751-8). Further investigation is needed, though.

It remains to be tested whether geckos could recognize their own reflection in a disco ball.


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