Science

Video: These goats stare at men—when they want help

Dogs, horses, and human toddlers all know what to do when faced with a problem they can’t solve: Catch a person’s eye. Something in that look—which scientists consider a sophisticated form of communication—lets the person know that the animal or the child needs help. Dogs are especially good at this, perhaps because they were domesticated as companion animals and their brains have been reshaped over the thousands of years they have been living with us. In contrast, neither wolves—dogs’ closest living relatives—nor cats, who lead relatively solitary lives, can “speak” via gazing. The idea that only companion animals use their eyes to communicate with people was reinforced earlier this year when horses were also found to be good at the gaze. But now scientists report that domesticated goats, animals that live with us not for companionship but for food, also have this skill. Scientists reached their conclusion after presenting 32 goats with an impossible task: Open a transparent plastic box with food inside. There was just one catch: The lid was fastened shut, and the goat couldn’t open it without help from a nearby person. The person sat facing either the box or a wall. The 16 goats who encountered the box-facing human looked longer and more often at the person than the other 16 goats, who were confronted with the person’s back. Thus, goats—animals that are not our everyday companions—understand the most fundamental part of communicating with a gaze: You have to be able to look the person in the eye, the scientists write today in Biology Letters. And that calls into question the notion that only a special kind of domestication—companionship—leads to animals that know how to use their eyes to speak to people, the scientists say.