Snowball is a male sulphur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita eleonora). In 2007, he garnered YouTube fame for his uncanny ability to dance — including head bobs and foot steps — to the beat of the Backstreet Boys. According to a new study published in the journal Current Biology, Snowball has a repertoire of 14 dance moves and two combinations.
“What’s most interesting to us is the sheer diversity of his movements to music,” said Dr. Aniruddh Patel, a psychologist at Tufts University and Harvard University.
“Snowball developed those moves — much richer than the head bobbing and foot lifting we’d studied before — without any training.”
The team’s earlier study confirmed that Snowball could move to the beat. That was notable in part because dancing is a natural ability in humans that’s absent in other primates.
Soon after that study, Snowball’s owner and an author on the new paper, Irena Schulz, noticed that the parrot was making movements to music she hadn’t seen before.
This gave the researchers the chance to study another potential similarity between Snowball’s movements and human dancing: diversity in the movements and body parts used when responding to music.
To quantify Snowball’s movement diversity, the scientists filmed Snowball grooving to two classic hits of the eighties: ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ and ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun.’
They played each of the tunes for him three times for a total of 23 minutes.
At the time, Snowball was 12 years old and had not danced to those songs with anyone other than his owner.
During filming, Schulz was in the room shouting an occasional ‘Good boy.’ But Snowball was the only one in the room dancing.
To analyze Snowball’s movements, the study authors used frame-by-frame analysis with the audio muted. They focused on each ‘dance movement’ or sequence of repeated movements.
The movements of interest were clearly intentional, but they weren’t an efficient means for Snowball to achieve any plausible external goal.
All told, the video captured Snowball completing 14 dance movements and two composite movements.
He bobs, swings, and circles his head around in several different ways, sometimes in coordination with foot lifts or other movements.
Unlike the way humans normally dance, Snowball tended to dance in snippets of about three or four seconds. Each time he heard a particular tune he danced a little differently, a sign of flexibility and perhaps even creativity.
Snowball isn’t the first parrot to move to the music, but there has been uncertainty about how such moves are acquired.
The researchers propose that the reason humans and parrots share a natural ability to dance may arise from the convergence of five traits: (i) vocal learning, (ii) the capacity for nonverbal movement imitation, (iii) a tendency to form long-term social bonds, (iv) the ability to learn complex sequences of actions, and (v) attentiveness to communicative movements.
“For humans, dancing is a form of social interaction. People more often dance with other people than they do alone,” Dr. Patel said.
“We are currently analyzing data from an experiment designed to find out whether the same is true of Snowball.”
R. Joanne Jao Keehn et al. 2019. Spontaneity and diversity of movement to music are not uniquely human. Current Biology 29 (13): 621-622; doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2019.05.035