Dancing Cockatoo Snowball’s various dance styles show that humans aren’t the only species that like to move
Snowball, everyone’s favorite dancing cockatoo, is back!
- Researchers found that Snowball had 14 distinct dance moves
- They think the impulse to dance to music comes when five traits converge
- They can’t be sure if Snowball creates his own moves or is a very good imitator.
The sulphur-crested cockatoo has shown it’s not just a one-hit wonder, with new images released today showing the bird’s diverse dance moves to two classic 80s songs.
Snowball rose to fame ten years ago when the United States researchers have shown that he can move his head to the beat of the Backstreet Boys’ song Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).
In their latest study, published today in the journal Current Biology, researchers focused on the spontaneity and diversity of movements that Snowball performs to music.
While moving spontaneously to music is common in humans, it is relatively rare in other species, and absent in other non-human primates.
The researchers filmed Snowball dancing to Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want To Have Fun and Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust. It was played three times on each track.
They then performed a frame-by-frame analysis of the resulting footage and found that Snowball performed 14 distinct moves and two composite moves to the music, ranging from body rolls to head butts to vogue.
Interestingly, Snowball danced differently each time he heard a particular tune, which the researchers said was a sign of his flexibility to switch to music.
“We were surprised by the diversity of musical movements in Snowball, all of which emerged without any training, through social interaction with humans,” said psychologist and study co-author Aniruddh Patel of the Tufts University.
This suggests we need to rethink the assumption that the sophisticated movement of music is something unique to humans, Professor Patel said.
What makes us dance?
“We think the impulse to dance to music arises when certain cognitive and neural abilities come together in the brains of animals,” Professor Patel said.
In the paper, the researchers identified five abilities that they see coming together only in parrots and humans.
The first is complex vocal learning, or the ability to learn to produce complex new sounds based on the experience of what we have heard. This ability creates strong connections in the brain between hearing and movement.
The second is the non-verbal movement imitation ability, or being able to watch someone perform a movement and then replicate it yourself.
Then there’s the tendency to form long-term social bonds, which is tied to the fact that Snowball (and humans) seem to dance for social reasons, rather than for food or as part of mating rituals.
the the ability to learn complex sequences of actions is another skill apparently shared by parrots and humans. This requires sophisticated neural processing, Prof Patel said, because we are talking about movements that are not innate.
And finally, attention to communicative movements, which means that we look at the structure of movements and not just the consequences of actions.
How does Snowball get his killer dance moves?
So is Snowball a very creative dancer or just a great human imitator? Researchers say they can’t be certain.
“We think some of his moves are probably his own creation, as his owner doesn’t do those moves when dancing with him.”
Indeed, no one was dancing with him when the videos were filmed.
And even if Snowball is more of a great imitator than a great creator, that still indicates he has remarkably sophisticated abilities, Prof Patel said, given that humans and parrots have such different body types.
Gisela Kaplan, a professor of animal behavior at the University of New England who was not involved in the study, said the team had done good research analyzing Snowball’s dance moves so precisely. and summarizing the traits that might be causing them.
“It seems – and that’s what makes the paper interesting – that the cockatoos have reached the same point [as humans] … where the convergence of different traits that may have developed separately suddenly come together to be able to form something new,” Prof Kaplan said.
“The convergence of these abilities has obviously led to something that we need to be able to explain that we haven’t been able to explain before.”
Professor Kaplan said the “seminal” paper opened the door to new research possibilities.
She added that, cognitively, moving from imitation to creativity was not that difficult.
“There’s still a big leap between imitation and creativity and producing something new yourself in a new context,” she said.
“But once you establish the first stage, the second stage is not far away.”