Chances are you've stumbled across YouTube videos of Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo grooving to his favorite tunes and keeping reasonably good time to the beat. Now the same researchers who demonstrated Snowball's unusual flair for dance are back with a new paper in Current Biology, showing that Snowball has quite a broad range of distinct moves—14 in all.
Snowball is a male Eleonora cockatoo who came to national attention around 2008, when his owner, co-author Irene Schulz, posted a video of him moving to the beat on YouTube. (She runs the bird shelter where Snowball lives in Schererville, Indiana.) The Internet went crazy, and Snowball made numerous TV appearances, even appearing in several TV commercials—most notably a 2009 Taco Bell spot where he grooved to "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)." And he's not the only bird species to show a flair for dance. In 2009, Harvard scientists surveyed a large swath of YouTube videos, looking for those featuring animals moving in time to the music. They found 33, all featuring birds.
Co-author Aniruddh Patel, then with the Neuroscience Institute in La Jolla, California, had previously theorized that perhaps only certain kinds of animals had the type of specialized brain circuitry capable of responding to rhythm and beat. Notably, he considered those with complex vocal learning—that is, the ability to imitate complex sounds, an unusual ability in the animal kingdom. "We're the only primate with that ability," said Patel, now at Tufts University. "So I made some predictions that if we ever saw this, it would only be in vocal learning species. Building these strong auditory motor connections may be an important prerequisite for rhythm and beat perception."
Patel soon heard about Snowball when a colleague showed him the YouTube video of the bird "dancing." Patel told The New York Times in 2010 that it was like discovering a dog reading a newspaper out loud. "We'd never seen a non-human animal do this before spontaneously," he said. Even trained animals can't do it, although they can put on a convincing simulation, such as the sea lions at Sea World in San Diego where Patel occasionally took his kids. "It was obvious that the [sea lion] dancing was based on human cues, that they'd been trained to do this for food rewards," he said.
Patel approached Schulz about a research collaboration, and they spent several months filming Snowball dancing to his favorite tunes. They were able to demonstrate that Snowball clearly moved in response to the beat, although his attention occasionally wandered. "There were times he was locked on, then he would drift off and dance at his own tempo, and then lock back on again—more like a human child than a human adult," said Patel.
That first study, published in 2009, simply looked at Snowball's synchronization with the music as he danced. The bird mostly did simple moves like bobbing his head and lifting his foot with the beat. Just after finishing the first session, Schulz noticed some new behavior: Snowball had progressed from simple head bobs and foot lifts and seemed to be trying out new dance moves, with a bit less synchronization as a result. "That's another interesting parallel with what humans do," said Patel. The team quickly set up another experimental filming session with Snowball to capture the new behavior.
This time, they played just two songs, both new to Snowball: Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" and Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." Snowball heard each tune three times, for a total of 23 minutes, with Schulz in the room offering occasional encouragement by shouting "Good boy!" Co-author R. Joanne Jao Keeh, who trained in classical and contemporary dance, analyzed the footage frame by frame with no audio, looking for patterns or sequences that might constitute a dance move.
So why is the paper only now being published? "Life intervened," said Patel. He changed jobs, had two kids, and Keeh decided to pursue graduate work in child brain development instead of cognitive science and dance. But when Patel read a 2016 paper on the theoretical underpinnings of the evolution of dance, it rekindled his interest in Snowball's killer moves. He finally went back and completed the analysis of the recordings of Snowball's experimental phase.
Patel and his co-authors identified 14 distinct dance moves from those taped sessions: downward, side to side, down shake, foot lift, foot lift down swing, head-foot sync, head bang, head bang with lifted foot, pose, semi-circle low, semi-circle high, body roll, counter-clockwise circle, and vogue. The authors propose that this dancing ability is due to five converging traits: vocal learning ability, the ability to imitate nonverbal movement, the ability to learn complex sequences of actions, propensity for forming long-term social bonds, and being able to pay attention to communicative movements.
Snowball had to perform a move at least twice for it to count as a dance move, as opposed to just flailing around. But it's not clear if there's a pattern in his sequence of moves. "We don't have enough data to answer that question," said Patel. "He's definitely not doing a dance routine, like the ChaRead More – Source