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What Do Goats, Puppies and Horses Have in Common?

Goats communicate with humans using eye contact, according to a new study

(Tambako The Jaguar /Flickr)
smithsonian.com

Anyone who has owned a dog knows they can say a lot only using their eyes. Food dish empty? They’ll look up at their human in anticipation. Want to go outside? They’ll turn their head to make eye contact.

Researchers thought that along with our canine companions horses were the only other domesticated animal that communicated with humans using eye contact. But a new study published in the journal Biology Letters suggests we can add one more animal to the list: goats.

Researchers from Queen Mary University conducted their study at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in the U.K.—an ungulate’s paradise where the resident animals receive lots of human interaction, reports ​Jennifer Viegas for Discovery News. The team first trained the 34 male and female goats to lift the lid on a plastic box to get at a treat. Then they created an “unsolvable problem” for the animals by sealing the box shut.

The researchers stood by as the goats tried to open the box. When they failed, the animals looked to the human experimenters as if asking for help, similar to how puppies looked back and forth between the box and person. When the researchers turned their backs, the goats did not gaze up as many times or for as long, indicating that seeing a person's face is important.

“Goats gaze at humans in the same way as dogs do when asking for a treat that is out of reach, for example,” co-author Christian Nawroth says in a press release. “Our results provide strong evidence for complex communication directed at humans in a species that was domesticated primarily for agricultural production, and show similarities with animals bred to become pets or working animals, such as dogs and horses.”

“These results are pretty surprising,” Laurie Santos of Yale's Canine and Primate Laboratory tells Rachel Feltman at The Washington Post. She explains that the study shows domestication for non-social reasons—goats are primarily bred for meat, milk and hides—can still produce animals with the social skills to communicate with people. “This is exciting, as it shows how little we still understand about how the process of domestication can shape rich social understanding.”

Researchers already know goats are smart and have some sort of emotional life. Previous research by the study co-author Alan McElligott showed that goats change the position of their ears and their vocalizations when feeling negative emotions. McElligott also previously showed that goats are able to learn a complex task quickly and remember how to do the same task ten months later.

Understanding the domestication process and the inner-life of goats could lead to better treatment in the future, Jan Langbein of the Leibniz Institute for Farm Animal Biology tells Discovery News. "Public knowledge about cognition in, and emotions of, farm animals will change consumers’ attitudes towards them," he says.

These studies could also help differentiate them from their long-time, petting-zoo frenemy, sheep. "Currently there are about a billion goats on the planet being used for agriculture, but still most of the welfare guidelines for keeping them come from sheep," McElligott tells Feltman. "Anyone who’s worked with goats and sheep know they're quite different."

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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