YouTube Star Snowball the Cockatoo Dances like Humans, in a Way Not Even Seen in Monkeys or Dogs

Scientists who studied a cockatoo whose dances have been viewed millions of times on YouTube believe the bird bops similarly to humans, unlike other species including monkeys.

You might know Snowball from a YouTube video in which he dances to "Everybody" by 90s boy band Backstreet Boys, or perhaps his appearance on The Late Show featuring his owner and scientist Irena Schulz.

Unlike most animals, scientists think parrots have the capacity to dance to music, likely because their brains have strong auditory-motor connections, according to the study published by Schulz and colleagues in the journal Current Biology.

The study is believed to be the first scientific report of an animal making a range of movements while spontaneously dancing to music, study co-author Aniruddh D. Patel, professor in the department of Psychology at Tufts University, told Newsweek.

The study "suggests that dancing to music isn't an arbitrary product of human culture but a response to music that arises when certain cognitive and neural capacities come together in animal brains," said Patel.

In 2009, Schulz co-authored a separate paper reporting that Snowball, her sulphur-crested cockatoo, could synchronize his movements to a musical beat. But as time passed, Schulz noticed that Snowball's didn't just bob his head and lift his feet: he busted all sorts of different moves.

During a phase Schulz dubbed his "movement exploration" period, Snowball seemed to be reacting to the music using different parts of his body. The authors stressed Schulz didn't train Snowball to dance. And when she did dance with him, she'd generally just bob her head or wave her hands.

Rather than moving in time with the beat, Snowball appeared to dance rhythmically to music, the authors found. The researchers believe this is because he was finding out how his body could move rather than drawing from an existing dancing repertoire.

To take a scientific look at Snowball's movements, the team filmed him dancing to Another One Bites the Dust by Queen and Cyndi Lauper's Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. They played the songs three times. At the time, Snowball had only previously danced to the songs with his owner. As he was filmed, Schulz didn't move with Snowball but encouraged his performance by saying "good boy" from time to time.

The researchers took the footage and studied it frame by frame. The cockatoo was found to have 14 distinct dance moves. And while humans tend to dance continuously, the cockatoo boogied in bursts of around 3.69 seconds on average.

Snowball's movements seemed to constitute dancing rather than having a specific purpose, like traveling. What's more, he broke out different shapes to the same or rhythmically similar music.

Next, the team want to investigate whether Snowball's dancing would be less stilted if he bopped with a human. Another question remains; whether the cockatoo picked up his moves by mimicking humans—even though their bodies differ greatly from his own—or by creating them himself. Either way, both possibilities would be "remarkable," the authors wrote.

"Even dogs, who are so attuned to humans and so bonded to them, don't imitate complex human movements spontaneously," Patel told Newsweek.

Generally non-human animals display creative movements with a purpose, like during mating or to get food, the team said. Instead, Snowball seemed to be dancing simply to interact with his human caregiver, which he likely sees as his surrogate flock.

Patel told Newsweek the team were surprised by the "sheer diversity" of Snowball's movements.

"It is very unusual for animals to dance to music spontaneously and with diverse movements. Strikingly, this has never been observed in monkeys, who are so much more similar to humans than parrots are, in terms of genetic, brain, and body structure, and even though people have kept small monkeys as pets for a very long time, e.g., in South America."

Patel also warned readers against buying birds like Snowball "just to watch them dance."

"Often people don't realize how much work it is to have a parrot, which is why so many end up in shelters. Snowball has a loving home at the Bird Lovers Only Rescue Service shelter, but many parrots are not as lucky."

Carel ten Cate, Professor of Animal Behavior at the Institute of Biology Leiden, Leiden University, who was not involved in the research, asked whether Schulz's verbal encouragement was given at moments that Snowball happened to make random movements, and might have unwittingly reinforced that move.

"More generally Snowball might have learned to get attention if moving when music is played," he told Newsweek. "The authors also mention that the new moves were not well synchronized with the music. Not clear is whether this improved over time and hence how strong the relation between the music and the moves was.

"It remains very fascinating what Snowball does, but how it got to be that way remains unclear—inevitably making the study anecdotal."

yellow crested cockatoo, sulphur crested cockatoo, getty,stock
A stock image of a sulphur-crested cockatoo, similar to Snowball. Getty
YouTube Star Snowball the Cockatoo Dances like Humans, in a Way Not Even Seen in Monkeys or Dogs | Tech & Science