Goats May Have Better Communication Skills Than We Give Them Credit For

A new study says goats communicate with their gaze, much like dogs and horses.
An adorable goat bonds with a human -- or maybe it just wants help with something?
An adorable goat bonds with a human -- or maybe it just wants help with something?
Ronnie Kaufman/Larry Hirshowitz via Getty Images

Goats are having a moment. After living with humans for about 10,000 years and being incredibly funny all along, they are finally getting some credit for their intelligence.

Scientists at Queen Mary University of London recently found that goats might be as smart as dogs ― at least when it comes to communicating with their humans to solve a puzzle that leads to a big treat, says a study published July 5 in the journal Biology Letters.

This particular communication between people and animals happens through gaze and it’s quite rare: The animals turn to look at humans intentionally when they need help solving a problem. In this case, though, their problems were hardly more complicated than opening a box containing food.

Only a few species apparently show this communication skill ― especially dogs. That’s likely due to the thousands of years (estimates suggest up to 30,000 years) they have lived with humans as domesticated animals. Horses, too, are great at communicating through gaze.

Cats, on the other hand, perform poorly in experiments trying to assess this communication skill, research suggests. (But cats are notoriously unwilling study participants, and cat owners are familiar with the fierce gaze they throw at you when they need food.)

All of those animals have lived as human companions for millennia, so it’s not necessarily surprising that they may have picked up a thing or two during this long relationship.

But what about goats, creatures that also have a long history of being near humans but are bred almost solely for food purposes, rather than companionship?

To investigate, study co-author Christian Nawroth and his colleagues trained goats to remove a lid from a box to receive a treat. After letting the goats get their tasty rewards for a few rounds, the researcher closed the lid permanently and watched what the confused goats did.

As the video above shows, the animals looked alternately at the box and the researchers with the familiar pleading gaze of a dog.

Goats gaze at humans in the same way as dogs do when asking for a treat that is out of reach,” Nawroth said in a statement.

These findings may change the way we think about the effects of domestication on animals. They challenge the idea that only a specific kind of domestication (selecting animals for companionship) has allowed them develop complex communication with humans, the researchers said.

However, not all goats will necessarily display the same behavior as the goats in this study. According to the researchers, those goats have experienced positive long-term interactions with humans.

Scientists have noticed hints of intelligence in goats before. In a study published in Frontiers in Zoology in 2014, for example, researchers showed that goats are capable of solving a puzzle designed for primates, a supposedly more intelligent group of animals. The puzzle ― called the artificial fruit challenge ― required goats to perform a series of actions to retrieve a piece of fruit in a box. In the experiments, 9 in 12 goats were able to get to the fruit by pulling on a rope attached to a lever and then lifting the lever up.

Goats seem to have great memory, too ― they remembered to do this even 10 months later.

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