What This Head-Banging, Body-Rolling Cockatoo Teaches Us About the Evolution of Dance

Researchers found internet-famous Snowball has 14 unique moves and five neural traits that lead him to the dancefloor

Snowball, the dancing cockatoo

Dancing seems like a decidedly human activity—it requires the technology to produce music, innate rhythm and an ability to respond to music. Most other "dancing" animals—even dog dancing champions—are really just responding to training and not spontaneously busting a move. But a new study confirms that at least one animal can truly get its groove on: Viral video star Snowball, the sulfur-crested cockatoo, really does move to the beat, and a new study has catalogued 14 dance moves the plucky bird has developed to express himself.

Snowball’s story began in 2007, reports Ed Yong at The Atlantic, when the cockatoo’s original owner surrendered him to the Bird Lovers Only rescue center in Dyer, Indiana. He also left a Backstreet Boys CD, telling the staff that Snowball loved to dance. He wasn’t lying; Irena Shulz, director of Bird Lovers Only who adopted the bird, took a video of Snowball jamming out to his favorite song, “Everybody.”

The dancing bird was an early YouTube sensation, and appeared on the Tonight Show and starred in a Taco Bell commercial. Among Snowball’s early fans was neuroscientist Aniruddh Patel, now at Tufts University, who recognized Snowball's moves as potentially genuine dancing—a very rare phenomenon in animals. In 2008, he tested the bird’s ability to keep the beat, which was very good. During that research, he noticed that Snowball seemed to be expanding his repertoire. Then-undergraduate researcher R. Joanne Jao Keehn recorded Snowball dancing to Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”

When Keehn, now a neuroscientist at San Diego State University, later analyzed the footage, she found the bird developed 14 distinct movements with no previous training, including combinations of head bobs, foot lifts, head bangs, and the hand and head motions associated with voguing. She also found that Snowball dances a little differently to each tune, a sign of flexibility and, just perhaps, some avian creativity. The research appears in the journal Current Biology.

“We were amazed,” Patel tells Ian Sample at The Guardian. “There are moves in there, like the Madonna Vogue move, that I just can’t believe. It seems that dancing to music isn’t purely a product of human culture. The fact that we see this in another animal suggests that if you have a brain with certain cognitive and neural capacities, you are predisposed to dance.”

So why can the bird get its groove on while other pets like cats, dogs and hamsters just stare blankly? Patel believes that dancing is limited to animals that are “vocal learners,” which can learn various sounds from their environment.

According to a press release, the researchers proposed four other traits that converge to make humans and parrots able to break it down on the dancefloor. That includes the capacity for nonverbal movement imitation, a tendency to form long-term social bonds, the ability to learn complex sequences of actions, and attentiveness to communicative movements.

In addition to humans and parrots, dolphins and elephants fit the bill, but researcher have not observed either of those species spontaneously dancing. Monkeys and apes also fail move to the music.

Nicola Clayton of the University of Cambridge, who studies bird cognition but was not involved in this study, tells Yong she believes Snowball's moves are the real deal.

"This is what we would genuinely refer to as dance, both in the scientific community and in the dance profession,” she says. “It’s amazing.”

Cognitive researcher Adena Schachner at the University of California, San Diego who has worked with Snowball in the past tells Pien Huang at NPR she agrees. “Snowball has been an important case study in music cognition,” she says. “He pushes the limits of our beliefs in animal musicality, convincing us that non-human animals can be capable of very human-like dance behavior.”

Patel tells Yong that there’s a larger meaning behind the study besides revealing that Snowball’s got moves. Birds, he tells Yong, are more closely related to dinosaurs than humans, but they can still dance. That suggests dancing is not some random, arbitrary human invention, but a result of unique social and neurological conditions that go very far back.

It’s possible, Patel tells the Guardian’s Sample, that Snowball is imitating a human dancer that researchers and his owner do not know about. Even so, it would be impressive that he could map human moves onto his little birdy body. Now, the researchers are looking more deeply into why the bird dances, and whether it is a purely social behavior, or if dancing is its own reward. In 2010, Patel found that Snowball danced solo when researchers played him Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself.” But when Shulz, his owner, was present, the white cockatoo cut loose twice as much, meaning, like many human dancers, he wants the world to see him shake his tail feathers.

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