What Scientists Are Learning from a Dancing Cockatoo

Snowball, the dancing cockatoo, defies expectations with a repertoire of moves. 

Posted Jul 13, 2019

 Pixabay
Image of a sulphur-crested cockatoo.
Source: Pixabay

In 2009, Aniruddh Patel published a paper in Current Biology about a cockatoo named 'Snowball' who had become a YouTube sensation for bopping his head and tapping his feet to pop music. This parrot had the rare ability among nonhuman animals to synchronize body movements to a musical beat. Although moving in synchrony to music while dancing is a universal trait among Homo sapiens, the ability to synchronize diverse movements to a musical beat is uncommon in other species, including primates.

After first observing Snowball over a decade ago, Patel and co-authors concluded, "These findings indicate that synchronization to a musical beat is not uniquely human and suggest that animal models can provide insights into the neurobiology and evolution of human music."

Patel is currently a professor of psychology at Tufts University and a research fellow at Harvard University where he's studying the evolution of human musical behavior and music cognition. Patel is also writing a book based on a synthesis of research on how animals process music as part of his ongoing exploration and development of theories regarding "human gene-culture coevolution."

Soon after the preliminary Snowball paper (Patel et al., 2009) was published, Snowball's owner, Irena Schulz, noticed that her pet cockatoo was making some dance moves she'd never seen before, which prompted more scientific analysis. This week, Patel and colleagues published a follow-up study about Snowball's repertoire of unique dance moves, "Spontaneity and Diversity of Movement to Music Are Not Uniquely Human," (Keehn et al., 2019) in Current Biology.

Although parrots can imitate human movements, Snowball wasn't trained to mimic any of his signature moves; he invented each of his "spontaneous and diverse" movements to music. 

According to the researchers, the latest observation of Snowball's 14 different dance moves suggests that musical responses may arise from specific cognitive and neural capacities that come together in human and parrot brains. Interestingly, the researchers point out, "Snowball does not dance for food or in order to mate; instead, his dancing appears to be a social behavior used to interact with human caregivers (his surrogate flock)."

As you can see in this YouTube video below of Snowball moving in synchrony to Cyndi Lauper's classic "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," this legendary dancing cockatoo does have 14 unique moves:

Before recording the above video, Snowball hadn't previously danced to this song with anyone other than his owner. Schulz can be heard off-camera encouraging her dancing cockatoo with an occasional "good boy," but Snowball is the only creature (human or nonhuman) dancing in the room.

Anyone who saw Snowball on a "pet tricks" segment of Late Night with David Letterman (2008) might assume his dancing is merely circus-like entertainment. But there could also be some evolutionary importance to identifying the brain mechanisms that allow a parrot to synchronize its movements with music. As the authors explain:

"Rich diversity in parrot movement to music would suggest a strong contribution of forebrain regions to this behavior, perhaps including motor learning regions abutting the complex vocal-learning 'shell' regions that are unique to parrots among vocal learning birds [6]. Here we report that a sulphur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita eleonora) responds to music with remarkably diverse spontaneous movements employing a variety of body parts, and suggest why parrots share this response with humans."

Patel and colleagues speculate that five converging reasons might explain why parrots and humans share a natural ability to dance: 1) complex vocal learning, 2) the capacity for nonverbal movement imitation, 3) a tendency to form long-term social bonds, 4) the ability to learn complex sequences of actions, and 5) attentiveness to communicative movement.

Dancing is good for your brain. Hopefully, watching Snowball show off his exuberant passion for dancing will inspire you to hit the dance floor, too. For inspiration, here's another video of Snowball getting down, to "Another One Bites the Dust" by Queen. 

Each of Snowball's dance moves has a name. In the above video these are coded: Vogue (V), Semi-Circle High (SCH), Side-to-Side (S), Pose (P), Head bobs up and down (D), Headbang w/ Lifted Foot (HL), Head-Foot Sync (HF), Headbang (H), Foot-Lift (F), and Body Roll (B). 

The research team involved in this ongoing "dancing cockatoo" research is currently videotaping Snowball alone in a room listening to Billy Idol's "Dancing With Myself." Their objective is to see if Snowball likes to "dance like no one's watching" when he's alone, or if he prefers an audience.

More posts on the benefits of dance:

References

R. Joanne Jao Keehn, John R. Iversen, Irena Schulz, Aniruddh D.  Patel. "Spontaneity and Diversity of Movement to Music Are Not Uniquely Human." Current Biology (First published: July 8, 2019) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2019.05.035

Aniruddh D. Patel, John R. Iversen, Micah R. Bregman, Irena Schulz. "Experimental Evidence for Synchronization to a Musical Beat in a Nonhuman Animal." Current Biology (First published: April 30, 2009) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.03.038