Ben Pitcher

Goats know what their friends sound like

Goats know who their real friends are. A study published today in Royal Society Open Science shows that the animals can recognize what other goats look like and sound like, but only those they are closest with. Up until the late 1960s, the overwhelming assumption was that only humans could mentally keep track of how other individuals look, smell, and sound—what scientists call cross-modal recognition. We now know that many different kinds of animals can do this like horses, lions, crows, dogs, and certain primates. Instead of a lab, these researchers settled into Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in Boughton Monchelsea, U.K., to find out whether goats had the ability to recognize each other. To do so, they first recorded the calls of individual goats. Then, they set up three pens in the shape of a triangle in the sanctuary’s pasture. Equidistant between the two pens at the base of the triangle was a stereo speaker, camouflaged as to not distract the goat participants. A “watcher” goat stood at the peak of the triangle, and the two remaining corners were filled with the watcher’s “stablemate” (they share a stall at night) and a random herd member. Then, the team would play either the stablemate’s or the random goat’s call over the speaker and time how long it took for the watcher to match the call with the correct goat. They repeated this test again, but with two random goats. The researchers found that the watcher goat would look at the goat that matched the call quickly and for a longer time, but only in the test that included their stablemate. The results indicate that goats are not only capable of cross-modal recognition, but that they might also be able to use inferential reasoning, in other words, process of elimination. Think back to the test: Perhaps when the goat heard a call that it knew was not its pal, it inferred that it must have been the other one.