Researchers investigate why only humans and parrots can boogie-oogie-oogie

The 14 dance moves found in the dancing cockatoo study
Thanks to Snowball, the study concluded that spontaneity of movement to music is not unique to humans. (Courtesy of Irena Schulz)

Everybody off the dance floor. This guy really knows how to shake his tail feathers.

Researchers say that a cockatoo who became famous a decade ago for boogieing to the Backstreet Boys does more than just bob his head and lift his feet to the music.

The sulphur-crested cockatoo, Snowball, responds to music with “remarkably diverse spontaneous movements employing a variety of body parts,” according to the researchers.

Their study titled, “Spontaneity and diversity of movement to music are not uniquely human,” was published Monday in the journal Current Biology .

“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, noting that Snowball had developed those moves without any training.


The researchers said they believe that dancing may not be a product of human culture but a response to music that happens when certain cognitive and neural capacities occur in animal brains.

Patel had earlier shown that Snowball (below) could move to the beat, which was notable because, while humans dance, other primates don’t.

Soon after that, Snowball’s owner, Irena Schulz, a co-author on the paper, noticed Snowball was busting some new moves.

The study’s first author, R. Joanne Jao Keehn, a cognitive neuroscientist at San Diego State University and a classically and contemporarily trained dancer, analyzed film of Snowball throwing down to two classic hits of the ‘80s: “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”

She found Snowball had a repertoire of 14 “dance movements” and two composite movements, researchers said.

Keehn noted such moves as the body roll, the down-shake, the headbang with lifted foot, and the vogue.

Although animals can be trained to perform dance-like movements, Snowball was never explicitly trained to make specific movements to music, the study said.


Noting previous research on the evolution of dance, the researchers theorized that “spontaneous and diverse movement to music arises when five traits converge: A) complex vocal learning, B) the capacity for nonverbal movement imitation, C) a tendency to form long-term social bonds, D) the ability to learn complex sequences of actions, and E) attentiveness to communicative movements.”

“Parrots are unusual in sharing all of these traits with humans, which could explain why (to date) only humans and parrots show spontaneous and diverse dancing to music,” according to the study.