Goats, the boffins of the farmyard

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Goats are well known for their high adaptability and ability to survive in inhospitable and food scarce  environments. It turns out that this behavioural flexibility has played a key role in the evolution of complex cognition in goats, which are much more intelligent than had previously been thought. Goats are able to quickly learn to solve complex tasks – at least when the reward is food related! – and even remember how to solve these tasks up to ten months later.

Researchers from the Queen Mary University London tested the intelligence of 12 goats living at Buttercup Sanctuary for Goats using a food box cognitive challenge (essentially a box containing food which the goats were trained to open using specific movements of an attached lever), as can be seen in the below video.

They found that almost all of the goats they tested were able to learn to complete the task, and did so quickly – within 12 trials. Even more surprisingly, the goats were able to remember how to solve the task 10 months later, when the researchers returned and tested them again.

“The speed at which the goats completed the task at 10 months, compared to how long it took them to learn, indicates excellent long-term memory,” said co-author Dr Elodie Briefer, now based at ETH Zurich.Figure 2

They compared two groups; one group where goats were given the opportunity to watch another ‘demonstrator’ goat complete the task first, and a second group which learnt the task alone. Their results, published in Frontiers in Zoology today, found no difference between these groups, which suggests that goats, unlike many other intelligent species, are not social learners.

Instead, Briefer et al suggest that goats have evolved complex cognitive abilities as a result of selection pressures of their environments, where the scarce food that’s available can be difficult to find.

Co-author Dr Alan McElligott from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, commented: “Our results challenge the common misconception that goats aren’t intelligent animals – they have the ability to learn complex tasks and remember them for a long time. This could explain why they are so successful in colonising new environments, though we would need to perform a similar study with wild goats to be sure.”

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Lee Zasloff

What a great study. People who have goats (including me) believe them to be highly intelligent. This further demonstrates why they should be well cared for – besides being so engaging and funny. Another reason to carefully consider whether they should be eaten.

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