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How is the goat a close human communicator?

By Dave Armstrong - 07 Jul 2016 12:40:0 GMT
How is the goat a close human communicator?

The mountain goat is the ancestor of all those animals we now rear as domestic goats. The wild ancestor is found from Afghanistan to the Cape Verde islands, along with many invasive feral domestics. Here we literally look at the goat and it looks back, hopefully not in anger. Goat image; Credit: © Shutterstock

The goat is a little enigmatic, in that it is a pet-like animal as well as a food source - but the horse and dog are also food sources for humans. The relationship between goatherds, goat keepers and those who keep them simply for milk seems to be close, as they can be kept in a farmyard, almost like chickens, while their intelligence is often referred to as being at a high level.

All the introduction is to avoid disappointment for those who have believed that only 2 species really pay attention to human gaze or human instructions - obviously not the domestic cat! To surprise us all (except perhaps the goatherds), Christian Nawroth, Jemma M. Brett and Alan G. McElligott of Queen Mary University of London have a paper entitled Goats display audience-dependant human-directed gazing behaviour in a problem-solving task in the Biology Letters of the Royal Society.

Beginning with the idea that goats are typical herd animals, domesticated by farmers at an early stage in ancient farming, their behaviour was studied in relation to their gaze at a human face. Dogs such as sheepdogs will use gazing behaviour as a referential and intentional communication method. Many other animals such as cats are thought unable to use this inter-species signalling. The stance and even the feel of a human is also noted when some animals such as horses respond to instruction.

So what about the goats (32 of them, for this experimental series)? In a familiar pen, 1 of 2 experimenters were placed strategically to gain attention with a food reward, facing the food in a box (A), or looking away from the food(B). The goats learned quickly to locate the food, with negligible differences between the 2 strategies. The goats gazed at the humans regularly and behaviour was changed according to the direction of the human gaze during strategy A. This places animals domesticated for production in the same group as companion animals such as dogs or horses. Domestication looks as though it has a much bigger impact on inter-specific signals than we thought. Hominoid communication seems to spread to companion animals, but perhaps it is up to the animal to decide who is going to communicate with them!

Goats will gaze earlier and longer at a forward facing experimenter than towards someone who obviously is less interested. Toddlers (human), dogs and horses all do this, but how many more will be capable? 100% of these subjects acted positively in response to human faces, but what percentage of cats for example will behave in a similar way, and does that depend on the personality of the animal? The trouble with ethology is partly in how interesting it is. Further ideas always seem to spring up in the imagination. Goats here had a very special approach to the human experimenter. 44% of them stopped directly in front of the experimenter's face, before returning to the food box, perhaps because of some previous experience. As I said before, ask a goatherd!

The goat is intriguing, especially in our joint history and mythology. Here we investigate the kri-kri, the bezoar and the paaang, the markhr and the ibex, as well as those kids we’ve all met.