Snowball the cockatoo got Internet famous in the late 2000s when a video of him dancing to the beat of the Backstreet Boys went viral.
Aniruddh Patel, who is now a psychology professor at Tufts University, was astonished when he saw the video on YouTube a decade ago. "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.
Now Patel and his colleagues have found that Snowball busts at least 14 different dance moves. Their findings were published this week in Current Biology.
R. Joanne Jao Keehn, a dancer and cognitive neuroscientist at San Diego State University, is lead author of the paper. She analyzed videos of Snowball dancing to Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" and "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" by Cyndi Lauper. The researchers found that the cockatoo's repertoire includes headbanging, body rolls and vogueing.
Patel, who studies music and the brain and is a co-author of the paper, says that he and his colleagues were impressed by the diversity of Snowball's movements. "We've shown previously that he could synchronize to the beat of music," stepping his feet and bobbing his head in time to music, Patel says. But foot lifting and head bobs are typical parrot behaviors, used to move around and woo other parrots.
The new paper documents that Snowball taught himself a diverse set of dance moves. It's a finding that 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," says Patel.
"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, wrote in an email. "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." Schachner says that Snowball represents one well-documented case of behavior that extends across other parrots.
Based on their research, the study authors suggest five key underlying traits in animals that might enable them to dance. Patel describes them as "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 with other parrots and with humans.
The study authors' analysis of Snowball is based on dance videos captured in 2008. Snowball, now in his early 20s, is alive and dancing. He lives in a bird shelter in Indiana with his owner, Irena Schulz, a co-author of the paper. With a life expectancy upward of 50 years, he has a few smooth golden oldies decades to come.