As It Happens

Snowball the cockatoo is blowing scientists' minds with his 14 unique dance moves

Snowball the cockatoo is changing the way we think about music, culture and human evolution with his fresh and funky dance moves.

Suggests that impulse to dance isn't 'just an arbitrary invention of human culture,' researcher says

Snowball the sulfur-crested cockatoo became a viral video star and a scientific curiosity for his ability to bust a move to a beat. (Irena Schulz/Bird Lovers Only )
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Snowball the cockatoo is changing the way we think about music, culture and human evolution with his fresh and funky dance moves.

Scientists at Tufts University in Massachusetts have been studying the prancing parrot for more than a decade. At first, they were fascinated by his ability to spontaneously move to a beat, a trait previously only recorded in humans.

Most recently, they've been observing and documenting Snowball's creative tendency to invent and perfect new dances entirely on his own. The findings were published Monday in the journal Current Biology.

"We feel that this does suggest that the impulse to dance to music is not just an arbitrary invention of human culture like, you know, coffee cups or bicycles or any of the many other wonderful things we've invented," psychology professor Aniruddh Patel, the study's co-author, told told As It Happens guest host Robyn Bresnahan.

"It's an impulse that arises when certain cognitive and neural capacities come together in an animal's brain."

Snowball goes viral 

Patel's fascination with Snowball began back in 2008, when the sulfur-crested cockatoo became an early viral video star.

He had already been studying people's inherent ability and desire to move to a beat, when he came across the grainy YouTube footage of a white parrot bobbing, kicking and squeaking along to Everybody (Backstreet's Back) by the Backstreet Boys.  

"When I saw this video, I was amazed," Patel said. "We hadn't known of any other cases of animals actually spontaneously moving to the beat of music — something we see in every single human culture."

If you've ever been on YouTube, you've probably seen other videos of animals dancing. But while some critters can jump and sway to music, they don't do it in time with the beat unless trained.

But almost nothing — not the dogs and cats we share our homes with, nor the apes and monkeys who are our closest genetic relatives — could do what Snowball does. Patel had to know more.

He called up Snowball's owner Irena Schulz at the Bird Lovers Only rescue centre, then located in Dyer, Ind., and asked if he could study her bird.

"Thankfully, she said yes," Patel said.

Snowball can adapt 

The first study about Snowball was published in 2009 in Current Biology, and it confirmed that, yes, this cockatoo could keep a beat.

And what's more, he could adapt to changes in the music's speed. 

"He wasn't just imitating. There was nobody dancing on the camera in our study," Patel said. "He was doing it on his own."

Another study that year out of Harvard University replicated Patel's findings with both Snowball and another parrot named Alex, reports The Atlantic

That study's author, Adena Schachner, watched thousands of YouTube videos in search of more dancing animals, and found only 15 species with the same abilities.

One was an Asian elephant that could sway and swing its trunk with the beat, and the other 14 were parrots.

"It's remarkable that this convergence of this response to music occurs in us and in this very distantly related animal," Patel said. "Parrots have that convergence and we have it, but very few other animals probably have it."

14 distinct dance moves — and 2 combos

Snowball, like most dancers, only got better with time.

"Irena Schulz noticed that he was making some new movements to music when she danced with him, including things that she wasn't doing," Patel said.

"He seemed to be experimenting with new moves, and so we decided to try and study that properly because that was the second interesting parallel to humans."

The researchers combed through footage of Snowball grooving to songs like Another One Bites the Dust by Queen and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun by Cyndi Lauper.

They identified 14 individual dance moves, as well as two combinations. 

For example, there's "the side-to-side."

 

Some moves are more complicated, like "headbang with lifted foot."

 

Snowball can even "vogue."

 

"It's quite astonishing that he has 14 different moves," Patel said.

"He was never trained to make specific movements to music, never given any kind of food as a reward for his behaviour. It all emerged through social interaction with humans."

Dancing by himself 

That social interaction is what Patel and his colleagues plan to study next.

While anyone can listen to music privately on their phones, or shimmy and shake alone in their kitchens, dancing is still very much a social activity. We like to do it together.

Patel wonders whether it's the same for Snowball. 

"We've done an experiment wherein we have him hearing music either with nobody in the room, just the camera, or with somebody there giving him attention and encouragement, or with somebody actually dancing with him," he said.

"We want to see if that context affects how much he dances and how he dances, and we're analyzing that data right now."

The music of choice for this new study? Billy Idol's Dancing With Myself, of course.

"We thought that was just too perfect not to use for that study," Patel said. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. 

Clarifications

  • This story has been updated to clarify that some other animals have also been shown to move in time with a beat, but only when trained to do so.
    Jul 11, 2019 12:09 PM ET

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