The sulfur-crested cockatoo broke big on YouTube in 2007 for his toe-tapping, head-bobbing performance to the Backstreet Boys' "Everybody".
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. "We'll see if Snowball is the same".
Cockatoo Snowball performs to Queen. That piqued Patel's interest: it suggested that the beat was not simply triggering Snowball to make stock moves, but that he was choosing which moves to make. "Snowball does not dance for food or in order to mate; instead, his dancing appears to be a social behavior used to interact with human caregivers (his surrogate flock)".
"Snowball developed this behavior spontaneously", Patel told the outlet.
The first study showed that Snowball indeed anticipated the beat, bobbing his head and stomping his feet in time to the music.
Gisela Kaplan, a professor of animal behaviour at the University of New England who was not involved in the study, said the team had done a good piece of research by analysing Snowball's dance moves in such a precise way, and summarising the traits that could be causing them. To quantify Snowball's movement diversity, Patel's team filmed Snowball grooving to two classic hits of the eighties: "Another One Bites the Dust" and "Girls Just Want to Have Fun". Snowball's skills included a body roll, head bobs, foot lifts, head banging and a move reminiscent of Madonna's '90s Vogue dance craze.
The video, which was analyzed by the study's first author R. Joanne Jao Keehn, a cognitive neuroscientist and a trained dancer, shows Snowball completing a repertoire of 14 dance moves. Yet humans move their entire bodies when dancing in a grand array of gestures - twerking, anyone? They played the songs three times.
Snowball danced differently each time a new song or beat came on - displaying creativity and a sign of flexibility.
The researchers are now reportedly exposing Snowball to "Dancing With Myself" by Billy Idol to see if he too dances like there is no one in the room. They focused on each "dance movement" or sequence of repeated movements. "There are examples of other parrots making diverse movements to music on the internet, but Snowball is the first to be studied scientifically in this regard", Patel said.
The team, which reports its findings today in Current Biology, says five traits are needed to break it down on the dance floor: imitation; memorization; attentiveness; a tendency to form long-term social bonds; and vocal learning, the ability to learn and mimic language. And while humans tend to dance continuously, the cockatoo boogied in bursts of around 3.69 seconds on average. "They typically seek out other people and they act socially", said Patel.
Whilespontaneously moving to music is common across humans, it's relatively rare in other species and absent in other non-human primates.