Cockatoo gives researchers dance lessons

Snowball is more than just an internet sensation. Mark Bruer reports.

A compilation of the 14 dance moves found in the dancing cockatoo study. The music is merely indicative: for illustrative purposes, a single track has been used over movements that come from different video segments.
Irena Schulz.

Snowball the cockatoo, already famous for dancing to the beat of ’80s music, has taught himself a bunch of new moves and prompted researchers to question the origin of dance in humans.

A YouTube hit as far back as 2007, Snowball has extended his repertoire while bopping to Queen and Cyndi Lauper. And he has done it without training or by mimicking his owner.

Writing in the journal Current Biology, US researchers say new videos show that Snowball, a sulphur crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita eleonora), responds to music with diverse and spontaneous movements using various parts of his body.

The finding is more than an entertaining novelty. It suggests that dancing to music is not necessarily a product of human culture, but a response to music that arises when certain cognitive and neural capacities come together in some animal brains, the researchers write.

While every human culture has dance, other primates do not move spontaneously to music. Parrots, however, are known to move in time with a musical beat.

Snowball’s typical “dance” movements filmed over a decade ago were head bobbing and lifting his legs. But a cockatoo will bob its head as a courtship ritual and lift its feet as part of moving, and so these movements may have had other explanations than dancing to a beat.

Now, senior researcher Aniruddh Patel, a psychologist at Tufts University and Harvard University, United States, says Snowball’s dance moves are much richer than those he first studied in 2009.

Soon after that study, Snowball's owner Irena Schulz – a co-author of the report – noticed that he was making movements to music she had not seen before, and appeared to be going through “movement exploration” in response to music.

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.

So Patel's team filmed Snowball grooving to two classic ’80s hits: Another One Bites the Dust and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. They played each of the tunes three times for a total of 23 minutes.

The researchers concluded that Snowball’s movements could be defined as dance: “movements that are clearly intentional, but which are not an efficient means of achieving any plausible external goal, such as basic locomotion”.

All told, the video captured Snowball completing a repertoire of 14 dance movements and two composite movements. He bobs, swings and circles his head in several different ways, sometimes in coordination with foot lifts or other movements.

Each time he hears a particular tune he dances a little differently, a sign of flexibility and perhaps even creativity, Patel says.

But why does Snowball dance?

The researchers suggest that the reason humans and parrots share a natural ability to dance may arise from the convergence of five traits: vocal learning; 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.

“Parrots are unusual in sharing all of these traits with humans, which could explain why (to date) only humans and parrots show spontaneous and diverse dancing to music,” Patel writes.

For humans, dancing is a form of social interaction. People more often dance with other people than they do alone. Patel says they are currently analysing data from an experiment designed to find out whether the same is true of Snowball.

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Mark Bruer is a freelance journalist based in Adelaide, Australia. He is a former Features Editor of The Age newspaper in Melbourne, and Online Editor of The Australian and in Sydney.
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