Snowball, a male Eleonora cockatoo, is the first non-human conclusively demonstrated to be capable of beat induction: perceiving music and synchronizing his body movements to the beat (i.e. dancing).
Snowball’s abilities first came to light at the beginning of the 2000’s, when his previous owner acquired him from a bird show at the age of six. He was then observed bobbing his head on sync to the Backstreet Boys song, “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)”. When the owner and his children encouraged this kind of behavior, they saw Snowball starting to lift his feet rhythmically, perhaps in imitation of the family members’ arm-lifting gestures.
Soon after that, his owner gave Snowball away to the Bird Lovers Only bird shelter of Duncan, South Carolina, after the cockatoo became “difficult to manage”, following his daughter’s departure to college. When shelter owner Irena Schulz was informed of the cockatoo’s special ability and confirmed this unusual behavior, she uploaded a video of Snowball’s dancing, swaying, and head bobbing to her website. Some time later the video was uploaded to YouTube and went viral, garnering over 200,000 views in one week and even being featured on the television programs Inside Edition and The Morning Show with Mike and Juliet.
Aniruddh Patel, who is now a psychology professor at Tufts University, said his “jaw hit the floor” when he first saw the video on YouTube. “I said, you know, this is much more than just a cute pet trick. This is potentially scientifically very important,” he told NPR in 2009.
Back then, Patel led research to determine whether Snowball was really synchronizing his body movements to the music (and not simply mimicking or responding to the moves of humans present in the room at the same time), and found that Snowball was indeed capable of spontaneously dancing to human music. What is more, he is able to adjust his movements to match the tempo of the music, a behavior previously thought only to occur in humans. Other scientists at Harvard University have also studied Snowball and reached similar conclusions.
Now, as a follow up to that research project, Patel and his colleagues have found that Snowball busts at least 14 different dance moves. Their findings were published in Current Biology.
Lead author R. Joanne Jao Keehn, a dancer and cognitive neuroscientist at San Diego State University, analyzed videos of Snowball dancing to Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper. She found that the cockatoo’s repertoire includes headbanging, body rolls and vogueing.
According to Patel, who studies music and the brain and co-authored the paper, he and his colleagues were astounded by the diversity of Snowball’s movements. “We’ve shown previously that he could synchronize to the beat of music,” lifting his feet and bobbing his head in time to music, Patel says. But foot lifting and head bobbing are typical parrot behaviors, mostly used to woo other parrots.
According to the research findings, Snowball has taught himself a diverse set of dance moves, which supports the idea that “dancing is not just purely a product of human cultural invention. It’s a response to music that arises when certain cognitive and neural capacities come together in an animal brain,” Patel says.
“Snowball has been an important case study in music cognition,” Adena Schachner, a cognitive development researcher at the University of California, San Diego, who has worked with Snowball in the past but was not affiliated with this paper, told NPR. “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.”
Based on their research with the extraordinary cockatoo, the study authors suggest five key underlying traits in animals that might enable them to dance: “complex vocal learning, the ability to imitate movements, the ability to learn complex sequences of movements, attention to communicative gestures and the tendency to form long-term social bonds,” which parrots can form either with other parrots or with humans, says Patel.
Today Snowball is in his early 20s and is alive and dancing. He lives in a bird shelter in Indiana with Schulz, who is also a co-author of the paper. Since cockatoo’s have a life expectancy upward of 50 years, Snowball still has plenty of time to develop his moves.