Chances are you’ve stumbled across YouTube videos of Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo grooving to his favorite tunes and keeping reasonably good time to the beat. Now the same researchers who demonstrated Snowball’s unusual flair for dance are back with a new paper in Current Biology, showing that Snowball has quite a broad range of distinct moves—14 in all.
Snowball is a male Eleonora cockatoo who came to national attention around 2008, when his owner, co-author Irene Schulz, posted a video of him moving to the beat on YouTube. (She runs the bird shelter where Snowball lives in Schererville, Indiana.) The Internet went crazy, and Snowball made numerous TV appearances, even appearing in several TV commercials—most notably a 2009 Taco Bell spot where he grooved to “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).” And he’s not the only bird species to show a flair for dance. In 2009, Harvard scientists surveyed a large swath of YouTube videos, looking for those featuring animals moving in time to the music. They found 33, all featuring birds.
Co-author Aniruddh Patel, then with the Neuroscience Institute in La Jolla, California, had previously theorized that perhaps only certain kinds of animals had the type of specialized brain circuitry capable of responding to rhythm and beat. Notably, he considered those with complex vocal learning—that is, the ability to imitate complex sounds, an unusual ability in the animal kingdom. “We’re the only primate with that ability,” said Patel, now at Tufts University. “So I made some predictions that if we ever saw this, it would only be in vocal learning species. Building these strong auditory motor connections may be an important prerequisite for rhythm and beat perception.”