It's easy to think that musicality is a uniquely human pleasure. However, a head-bopping cockatoo with a taste for cheesy pop is showing that other animals have a surprisingly wide capacity for dancing and can spontaneously bust out a host of different moves in response to music.
Psychologists at Harvard University and Tufts University in Massachusetts have recently taken another look at “Snowball”, a sulfur-crested cockatoo who gained viral stardom back in 2008 after a video emerged of him dancing to the Backstreet Boys song "Everybody". Reporting in the journal Current Biology, they studied some other footage of Snowball boogying to two pop songs: “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen and “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper.
Snowball had not heard these songs before, yet he was able to spontaneously break out into dance that matched the songs’ rhythm. As this new study highlights, the parrot is not just simply head-bopping. Instead, the researchers note that the bird appears to display at least 14 different dance moves, accounting for a “remarkably diverse” range of movements using a variety of body parts. The moves include body rolls, foot lifts, head bobs moving in sync with a foot flick, and head swirls. All of these were performed without any training and scarcely any encouragement from his human counterpart.
"What's most interesting to us is the sheer diversity of his movements to music," senior author Aniruddh Patel, a psychologist at Tufts University and Harvard University, said in a statement. This, according to the researchers, suggests spontaneous movement to music is not unique to humans nor merely an arbitrary product of human culture.
Snowball has been the subject of numerous scientific studies. In 2019, a team of scientists, most of whom worked on this new research, wrote a paper claiming Snowball might display some of the first evidence of musical beat perception and synchronization – better known as dancing – in a nonhuman animal. While few have quite the same panache and flare as old Snowball, other parrots have since been shown to dance to music. Even chimps, our closest living relatives with whom we share about 99 percent of our DNA, do not do this.
So, this begs the question: why have a select few creatures evolved a taste for music? This is something that psychologists, geneticists, anthropologists, and biologists could discuss endlessly, but loosely speaking, it’s widely believed to have something to do with communication and a strong ability to recognize patterns. The team of researchers studying Snowball argue it’s actually a convergence of five different 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.