Watching Snowball the cockatoo dance to Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” has long been one of the joys of the internet.
The four-minute video has been viewed more than seven million times, and it’s probably generated at least that many grins. But when a small group of scientists first saw it a decade ago, they knew that it was more than entertaining. If it was real, it offered the first genuine support for a claim Darwin had made 148 years ago, but never proven: that animals perceived and enjoyed music as much as we did.
They wagered an expensive bottle of Spanish wine on whether it was legitimate, and shared that wine several years later when they were finally convinced it was real.
Now, the team has published their findings in the journal Current Biology, showing that Snowball can not only groove to music without explicit training, but he’s got his own dance moves.
“This suggests that sensitivity to music or capacity for music or musicality is shared among more animals than only humans and might have a long evolutionary history,” said Henkjan Honing, a professor of music cognition at the University of Amsterdam, who was not involved in the research, but who paid off the earlier bet. He said research on Snowball’s dancing persuaded him that musicality is an inborn, biological ability, like language, rather than a learned one, like reading.
Whether musicality is embedded in biology is still hotly debated. “My dream for my career is to be able to answer it with some feeling of certainty,” said Aniruddh Patel, a professor at Tufts University near Boston, who has led the Snowball research.
“If musicality is something that our brain has been shaped to do, that does speak to people’s questions about what human nature is,” said Dr. Patel. The research also raises the question of whether humans have evolved brain specializations for processing music, as we have for language.
Dr. Patel first saw Snowball on YouTube in 2008 and called Irena Schulz, who ran the shelter where the parrot lived. She had a background in biology and agreed to participate in a study. They tested Snowball’s ability to stick to the beat at 11 tempos. He isn’t perfect — rather like a toddler in a music class — but his movements sped up or slowed with the music.
Importantly from a scientific perspective, there was no human rocking out in the room with him, or feeding him treats to reward him for his dance moves. He did receive social rewards, like the verbal encouragement “good boy!”
He shakes one leg a dozen beats or so, then the other. He moves back and forth across his padded perch. He bobs his head for a bit, and then sways it side to side. He pauses between moves as if considering what to do next. Researchers counted a repertoire of 14 movements, none explicitly taught.
Snowball’s dancing ability was first noticed by a previous owner. One day, he and his daughter saw Snowball bobbing to the Backstreet Boys. They showered him with attention. And Snowball definitely knows that people appreciate his dancing, Dr. Patel said.
The team took more than a decade to publish these findings, Dr. Patel said, because life intervened — graduations, children, etc. He and the paper’s lead author, R. Joanne Jao Keehn, both completed the work this year during sabbaticals.
Animals that can move to a beat are likely to be those that learn by vocal imitation, like parrots and maybe dolphins and whales (no one’s tested those). One sea lion, named Ronan, has been shown to bob to a beat, defying this hypothesis. Dr. Honing said he can’t explain how a nonverbal imitator like a sea lion could do this. Ronan was also given food rewards for his bobbing, suggesting that his musicality was learned rather than innate, Dr. Patel said.
Humans’ close relative, the monkey, can be taught to tap to a metronome, but it’s a learned skill and is tough to teach, Dr. Patel said. They’re better at responding to a tone than predicting another downbeat.
Popular culture suggests that many animals can perceive and enjoy music as well as we can. Think of dancing bears, the internet sensation of freestyling dogs and the cliché about music taming wild beasts. But the bears and dogs are only responding to cues from their owners, not generating the rhythm themselves, research suggests.
W. Tecumseh Fitch, a biologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Vienna, who was not involved in the research, but who won the earlier bet, strongly believes that musicality has a biological basis. The obvious pleasure derived from music generates by both humans and animals like Snowball supports that belief, he said.
“Really what the bird seems to be doing is playing around,” Dr. Fitch said. “He’s not just doing this stereotyped robotic thing. He’s actually experimenting.”