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Snowball the cockatoo taught himself 14 dance moves

Snowball the cockatoo has some serious dance moves. And after some extensive research, scientists have counted and cataloged them and found that the rhythmic bird has exactly 14 unique maneuvers.

Snowball has been a YouTube star for more than a decade, first turning heads in 2007 when he was bopping his head, swaying and marching to “Everybody” by the Backstreet Boys.

Snowball caught the attention of researchers and was the focus of a 2009 paper that found he had an advanced musical beat. But the scientists weren’t sure if he was imitating the moves of the humans around him or if he was coming up with cool moves all on his own.

Shortly after that study came out, Snowball’s owner contacted researchers when the bird began devising new dance movements.

To see whether Snowball actually used various body parts when he was dancing (something only humans do) researchers played two ’80s hits with different beats — “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” — each played three times. His owner offered encouragement from another room but didn’t dance along.

Researchers recorded 14 distinct moves including a head bob, head shake and a headbang move in which he also lifts his foot. The findings are published in the journal Current Biology.

Researchers aren’t sure how Snowball learned to dance so intricately, but it shows the urge to bust a move isn’t just a human thing.

“Parrots are unusual because these complexities are coming together in their brains,” Aniruddh Patel, the neurobiologist at Tufts University who led both studies, told CNN. “When these capacities come together, it leads to the impulse to dance.”

The dancing debate

Of course, YouTube is filled with videos of dancing animals. There are dogs, cats, bears, ferrets, squirrels, dolphins, fish and parrots. But despite all of the video evidence, many scientists remain skeptical.

The debate lies in a crucial distinction. While many animals are obviously capable of “moving rhythmically” to music, that’s not the same thing as dancing. Dancing, according to scientists, requires an untutored, spontaneous response where the animal moves on the beat, matching motion to the music, according to NPR. By “untutored” and “spontaneous,” that means the animal can’t have a trainer or a human in the room that it is copying. The animal also can’t spend weeks listening to the tune before perfecting its moves. In order to dance like humans do, the animal should be capable of finding the beat on its first listen.

Most scientists stubbornly hold to the belief that only humans truly dance, but few studies have been done to test the matter.

When Patel first came across one of Snowball’s videos, his jaw “hit the floor.” Though he counted himself among scientists skeptical of such displays, he knew he had to meet this bird to find out for himself.

Patel brought with him a CD containing 11 different versions of “Everybody.” All were the same pitch as the original, but each remix used an altered tempo.

Snowball danced gloriously. He bobbed, stomped and fluttered his fabulous crest feathers. Patel, meanwhile, took scrupulous measurements.

So how did Snowball do? Well, he ended up being “on the beat” only about 25% of the time. While that may not sound up to snuff if you’re comparing him to Justin Timberlake, it turns out that 25% is still better than pure chance. While Snowball wasn’t a great dancer, he was, nevertheless, a dancer. Patel and team concluded in their paper that Snowball was officially the first scientifically validated nonhuman dancer.

Of course, this study raised the inevitable question: if Snowball can dance, then what other animals can dance? Adena Schachner, then a psychology grad student at Harvard, decided she would be the one to find out. She went back to YouTube and started watching. More than 5,000 video clips and lots of measurements later, and she had her answer.

It turns out that among all the animals purportedly dancing online, very few of them are actually dancing. Of all the videos she watched, Schachner found only 39 legitimate dancers, and 29 of them were parrots like Snowball (though 14 different species were represented). All of the rest of the dancers were Asian elephants. No other type of animal could pass muster.

What makes parrots and elephants (and, yes, humans) so special? That answer remains mysterious. The next step in research will need to tackle that question. But at least humans can now rest assured that they aren’t alone in their ability to pick out a beat, and dance.

So the next time you find yourself in need of a dance partner, you might want to consider a pet parrot. (A pet elephant is probably ill-advised.)

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information since it was published in April 2014.

This cockatoo taught himself 14 dance moves, and researchers are fascinated

Study finds cockatoo called Snowball taught himself to dance and researchers want to understand how.


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