By Tamsin Cooper
Have you ever wondered what your goats are thinking and how they feel about life? Such questions encouraged Elodie Briefer, a Swiss animal behavior researcher specializing in acoustic communication, to study goat cognition with Queen Mary University of London in England.
Having studied skylark song in Paris, Elodie wished to go on to study mammal calls with animals she could observe more closely. A colleague suggested she contact Alan McElligott in London. He wanted to study how goat mothers communicate with their kids to investigate the influence of behavior that evolved in the wild before domestication. Alan had realized that most guidance on goat husbandry was based on sheep. Knowing, as any goat-keeper does, that goats are very different from their ovine relatives, he was keen to reveal evidence of their true nature. Scientific research is often based on what we already know about a species, because statutory guidelines and agricultural manuals do not include knowledge unless it is backed up by evidence. Elodie started her postdoctoral study with Alan at a pygmy goat farm in Nottingham.
They studied contact calls between dams and their offspring. They found that mothers and kids recognized each other by voice by at least one week after birth, a skill that would help them to find each other when kids are hiding in the undergrowth of their ancestral lands. These natural skills have been retained by goats after some 10,000 years of domestication. Even in modern settings, kids seek places to hide out with their siblings while their mother is browsing, and feel safer when we provide them with such facilities.
On analyzing calls at different times, Elodie found that the age, sex and body size of the kids affected their voices, and that the bleats of members of a creche would gradually begin to resemble each other, even if the kids were not related, so that the group would form its own accent.
Even a year later, the mothers still reacted to recordings of their kids’ calls, even if they had been separated after weaning. This gave Elodie and Alan an indication of how good a long-term memory this species has. As Elodie says, ‘… we then both “fell in love” with this species’. They decided to continue studying goats and focus on their cognition and emotions, ‘… because they seemed very “smart” to us and not much was known about their intelligence’.
Moving on to study a large herd of 150 rescued goats at a sanctuary in Kent, England, Elodie was struck by the skills of two caprine residents. One old Saanen wether, Byron, could lock himself in his pen when he wanted to rest without disturbance from other herd members. Another wether, Ginger, would shut his pen gate behind him when he and the other goats came into the stable at night. However, when his stable-mate arrived, he would open the pen to let in his friend only, and then lock the gate behind them.
This clever ability to master latches encouraged the researchers to design tests that would produce evidence of goats’ learning and manipulating skills. They built a treat-dispenser that required a lever to be pulled then lifted to release a piece of dried pasta. Nine out of ten goats tested learned to use the machine by trial and error within six days. They remembered how to do it after ten months and after two years without exposure to the equipment. Star pupil, Willow, a British Alpine doe, still remembered with no hesitation at all after four years.
However, watching a demonstrator use the equipment did not help them to learn the procedure quicker. They had to work it out for themselves. In another test, the QMUL team found that goats paid no heed to where another goat had found food and would readily explore other locations. These findings were unexpected, as goats are social animals, living in a herd, so presumed to learn from each other. Recent studies have certainly shown that kids learn from their mothers and that tame goats will follow a route taken by a human. So presumably, in the right circumstances, they use cues supplied by herd members. However, in these cases, where close up dexterity was required, and when the demonstrator goat had left the testing area, the goats relied on their own knowledge and learning abilities. These observations reflect the fact that goats originally adapted to difficult terrain, where food was scarce, so each goat would have to search for the best forage.
Individual thinkers goats may be, but they share their emotions, mainly through body language. Elodie and her team measured the intensity of goat emotional states and whether they are positive or negative. Their aim was to establish easy, non-invasive assessment methods. Intense emotions induce faster breathing, increased movement and bleating; calls are higher pitched and ears are alert and pointed forward. Positive states are displayed by a lifted tail and a steady voice, while negative ones are characterized by ears flicked back and a shaky bleat.
Longer-term moods may reflect a goat’s outlook on her environment and treatment. The goat sanctuary was the perfect place to compare goats that had been neglected or poorly treated before being rescued with those that had always been well cared for. Goats that had been at the sanctuary for more than two years were tested for cognitive bias. This is a test to gauge an individual’s view of the world: optimistic or pessimistic. Is the bowl half empty or half full? In this case, a bucket containing feed was placed at the end of a corridor. Goats were allowed access to two corridors, one at a time, and learned that one contained feed, while the other was empty. Once they had learned this, the goats were much quicker to enter the stocked corridor than the empty one. Goats were then given access to intermediate corridors, placed between two. What would goats expect of a bucket in an unknown corridor? Would they envisage it to be empty or full? Would goats that had suffered poor welfare be less hopeful? In fact, within males no difference in optimism was seen, whereas females with bad pasts were more optimistic than does with a stable background. The beneficial effects of the sanctuary had no doubt enabled these resilient does to bounce back and recover.
The team’s recent study, published in February, examines how adult goats recognize their pen-mate’s calls. They can even infer that an unknown voice belongs to a less familiar individual, showing that goats employ logical reasoning, as well as forming social connections.
After six years of study, Elodie concludes that goats are intelligent, emotional, stubborn and have a mind of their own. She thinks they’d make good pets if they didn’t insist on escaping and eating trees, vegetables, flowers and even your notebook. They should be respected and treated in line with their emotional and cognitive abilities in order to improve their living conditions. She says, ‘… their intelligence has been ignored for so long, and our research allows [us] to highlight the fact that they possess good cognitive abilities and their housing should be adapted to these abilities. I find that very exciting. Finally, the indicators of emotions that we found could be used to assess their welfare.
Dr. Elodie F. Briefer, Research fellow at ETH-Zürich: ebriefer.wixsite.com/elodie- briefer
Pitcher, B.J., Briefer, E.F., Baciadonna, L. and McElligott, A.G., 2017. Cross-modal recognition of familiar conspecifics in goats. Open Science, 4(2), p.160346.
Originally published in the May/June 2017 issue of Dairy Goat Journal.