Farm animals are more intelligent than they seem

Following on from our post last month about research into the intelligence of goats, we asked one of the authors of the article, Elodie Briefer, to tell us more about why she studies goats and what is was like to carry out the research. Here’s what she had to say…

My main research interests are vocal communication and cognition. I carried out my PhD in the Bioacoustics team of Paris South University, on the song of skylarks. After my PhD, I moved to Queen Mary University of London to work with Alan McElligott on mother-offspring vocal recognition and vocal ontogeny in goats, and later on, on goat personality and emotions.

Credit to Brian Squibb (35)
Photo credit: Brian Squibb

Expanding the breadth of research on cognition

After a few years working on goats, Alan and I started to get interested their cognition. Goats are very curious animals. Domestic and feral goats also possess several features commonly associated with advanced intelligence, such as being successful at colonizing new environments and having a varied diet, long life, good visual acuity and complex societies. Yet, very few studies have tested their cognition, apart from those on visual discrimination, categorisation and recognition of shapes.

Research on cognition is mainly testing species that are ‘known’ to be intelligent, such as primates, crows and parrots. The common public has this idea that farm animals are not particularly intelligent, but not much is known on their cognition.

We wanted to study these animals, in order to have a broader view of the evolution of cognition. Working with goats and hearing all the funny stories from goat owners about goats escaping from their pen or displaying extraordinary behavior to reach food gave us the idea of testing goat intelligence in a scientific way, and this is what we report in our recent paper published in Frontiers in Zoology.

Devising a task to test goats’ cognition

We tested to see if goats can learn a complex task, using an adaptation of the ‘artificial fruit challenge’ (food box) developed for non-human primate research. Our box contained food that could be accessed through a sequence of actions (two steps). The goats had to pull out a lever with their lips or teeth using a rope and then  lift the lever up using the mouth or muzzle, which made a food reward drop from a dispenser into a feeding bowl.

It took them between 8 and22 attempts (average of 12) to reach the learning criterion, which was three successful times. We then tested the goats after one month and then again after 10 months, and they solved the task within two minutes (between 6 and91 seconds), which was surprising for us. We thought they would remember, but not so fast! This time was much faster than the time it took them to learn (three to six days of, on average, 10 minute sessions), which shows good long term memory.

Nine of the twelve goats tested successfully learned the task. Two had to be excluded because they were using their horns to shake the box and obtain the food, and another one never learned. The slower learner took 22 trials to success, because she initially started to use her hoof to lift the lever during the first stage of the learning period, when the lever was already out of the box at the beginning of the trial. This strategy did not work during the second stage, when the lever was inside, and she had to learn to use her mouth instead.

Once the goat knew how to obtain the food, it was difficult to keep them away from the box, as they were extremely motivated to reach it. Even when I had food in my hands, they did not want to follow me out of the pen. They would also jump over fence to get to the box. All this shows that goats like cognitive challenges, which is confirmed by a study carried out by colleagues in Germany.

Credit to Brian Squibb (14)
Photo credit: Brian Squibb


Are goats social learners?

In our tests, as well as in a previous study we published recently, we also tested for social learning (i.e. goats copying each other), but we didn’t find any evidence for this phenomenon.

Some of the goats were exposed to a ‘demonstrator’ goat solving the task before each of their learning trials. We compared how fast these ‘observer’ goats were learning compared to the ones that did not have a demonstration. Social learning would be evident if observers learn faster than non-observers. However, one observer had to be removed, one never learned and the other observers learned in a similar amount of time as the non-observers.

So it seems that goats don’t learn socially, but rather individually. It could be that they learn simpler tasks socially, such as preferences for foods and where to find them, or perhaps that they learn better socially when they are young, as has been shown in horses, but this remains to be tested.

We think that goats lack sophisticated forms of social learning, because individual and simple social learning mechanisms are probably more efficient for improving their survival or reproductive success.

Treating farm animals with more respect

Our results could explain why goats are so successful at colonizing new environments. We think that the cognitive abilities highlighted in our paper allow goats in the wild to survive in harsh environments, as they can manipulate plants easily, as well as learn and remember how to access food.

Our research and, more generally, all recent results on farm animal behavior, show that these animals have emotions, good cognitive abilities and long-term memory. They should thus be kept and treated in a manner that recognizes this, with social partners and an enriched environment to prevent boredom.

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