Researchers hope the study's findings on goats encourage people to learn more about the intelligence and awareness of farm animals

By Kelli Bender
May 20, 2020 03:55 PM
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Goats get it!

According to a new study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, goats can interpret human cues, such as the pointing gesture, to gather information about their surroundings.

Carried out at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in Kent, U.K. — and supported by grant money from Farm Sanctuary’s The Someone Project the study involved researchers setting up an object-choice task, where an experimenter surreptitiously hid food in one of two buckets.

After the food was placed, goats had to pass a pre-test where the location of the food was shown to them by a human researcher pointing to the bucket containing the tasty loot. Goats that picked the right bucket and passed this pre-test moved on to the study's actual test.

"In the subsequent test trials, goats were confronted with a condition that differed in appearance and was displayed at a similar distance to the target (testing for generalization of pointing gesture), and a condition that looked similar to the initial proximal pointing gestures but was administered from an increased distance to the target (testing for comprehension of referentiality)," Farm Sanctuary shared in a release about the study.

The study found that "goats succeeded in locating the correct location when the pointing gestures were presented in proximity to the correct location compared to when the experimenter was further away from the rewarded location (asymmetric)."

To researchers, this indicated that goats can generalize their use of the human pointing gesture but might rely on stimulus/local enhancement rather than referential information.

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“We already knew that goats are very attuned to human body language, but we did not know if they could follow a human cue such as a pointing gesture in the same way that dogs and horses do to locate a treat. This study has important implications for how we interact with farm animals and other species, because the abilities of animals to perceive human cues might be widespread and not just limited to traditional companion animals," said Dr. Christian Nawroth from Leibniz Institute for Farm Animal Biology, Germany, who is also the first author of the study.

The study provides the first evidence of how goats follow human cues and implies that dogs and horses aren't the only animals that can perceive human-given cues.

"Goats were the first livestock species to be domesticated about 10,000 years ago," said the study's lead author Dr. Alan McElligott from the University of Roehampton, U.K. "From our earlier research, we already know that goats are smarter than their reputation suggests, but these results show how they can perceive cues and interact with humans even though they were not domesticated as pets or working animals."

The study's researchers and Farm Sanctuary hope these findings will encourage people to learn more about the intelligence and awareness of farm animals, and improve animal welfare in general.