You may not be able to tell when they’re busy chomping down on everything in sight, but goats possess advanced cognitive abilities. They know what their friends sound like, communicate with their gaze—much like dogs and horses, and can learn from humans when presented with problem-solving tasks. Now, as the BBC reports, a new study has found that goats may also be able to distinguish between humans’ facial expressions. What’s more, they seem to prefer happy faces to frowning ones.
A team of researchers recently recruited 35 goats from the lovely-sounding Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in Kent, England, to take part in an intriguing experiment. The animals were led into an enclosure and, in order to train them to move from one side of the pen to the other, an experimenter would stand opposite the goats holding dry pasta, a favorite goat snack. Because not all of the goats performed well in the training phase (some didn’t seem to want to approach the experimenter), researchers ended up working with 20 animals.
During the training sessions, the experimenter with the pasta maintained a neutral expression and looked down at the ground. Next, researchers attached photos of people that the goats had never seen before to two pieces of mesh on the far side of the enclosure. In one photo, the person was smiling; in the other, the person was frowning. The team conducted four experimental sessions. In each one, half of the goats were shown male faces, and half were shown female faces. The researchers also switched up the positions of the images, with the positive image sometimes being on the right side of the pen, and other times on the left.
In a study published in Royal Society Open Science, the team notes that the goats in the study “preferred to interact first with happy faces, meaning that they are sensitive to human facial emotional cues.” The animals also tended to spend more time sniffing smiling faces than frowning ones.
“This is the first evidence that shows goats are capable of visually discriminating facial expressions of a very different species, humans, who express their emotions in very different ways,” study co-author Natalia Albuquerque, an ethologist (someone who studies animal behavior) at the University of Sao Paolo in Brazil, tells Jessica Boddy of Gizmodo. “This means goats are more complex animals than we thought.”
The sex of the goat and the gender of the person in the images did not seem to influence the animals’ preference for happy humans. The researchers did find, however, that the goats only exhibited this preference when the smiling faces were positioned on the right side of the enclosure. This suggests that goats may process friendly social cues using the left hemisphere of their brains, the team suggests. Other animals also exhibit right-side bias when processing pro-social stimuli; horses, for instance, show a preferential use of their right eye when looking at a human who has previously shown them a positive emotion.
Previous research has shown that that horses and dogs are able to interpret human expressions. This, the researchers note, makes sense from an adaptive perspective, since horses and dogs have been domesticated as human companions. Goats, by contrast, were domesticated for food production. And yet, as the new study suggests, they may be able to pick up on humans’ emotional cues. It isn’t clear why this is the case, but the study authors posit that the way goats were bred over many years could have something to do with the animals’ ability to read our expressions.
In the study, they write:
“[A]n initial selection for tameness and a thus reduced emotional reactivity might have been sufficient to enhance a general human–animal communication set of skills in domestic animals.”
The results of the study are not wholly conclusive. The researchers can’t be certain, for instance, that the goats preferred happy expressions because they may have just been trying to avoid angry ones. But according to Albuquerque, the new research should make us rethink the way we see farm animals.
“The study has important implications for how we interact with livestock and other species,” she says in the statement, “because the abilities of animals to perceive human emotions might be widespread and not just limited to pets.”
So the next time you see a goat, why not turn that frown upside down?