Anyone who has interacted with a goat knows that they are full of character. Now even scientists know they are smart cookies – they can solve puzzles and remember the solution for months. They think in categories. And when confronted with a problem they cannot solve, they try to seek assistance from humans the same way dogs do.
However, in these tasks, the goats had to solve problems by themselves. So what about their ability to learn from others? When a mother goat strolls away, her kids will follow. Kids also learn whether things are edible or not by observing their mum primarily because foraging skills are extremely important. But what happens once the kids grow up? Are they able to learn from other goats or even humans? This topic has proved controversial in horses, with evidence pointing in both directions. For example, horses that observed another horse manipulating an apparatus to get food also spent more time near that test apparatus. However, observer horses were not faster getting the food at all.
The controversy becomes even worse for goats, with no indication of social learning in adults. So we don’t know yet whether they can learn from their friends, regardless of whether their buddies are other goats or humans. But what could explain this lack of evidence for social learning in goats and ungulates in general? Perhaps the fact that most ungulates live the lives of grazers and browsers – having food distributed literally below their mouth, making it unnecessary to learn from others. But what about that sweet spot of grass that my neighbour might know about but I don’t? Despite the overflow of food, wouldn’t it still be helpful to follow my pals when they walk off full of motivation? Additionally, is a test that requires you to manipulate an object with your mouth of any ecological relevance if you are a goat or horse? Yet another explanation for not following (often more dominant) demonstrator goats might be that you just avoid being attacked while competing for food.
Keeping these potential shortcomings in mind, we tried to use another, simpler experimental approach. We assessed social learning in goats using a so-called detour task, in which food was placed behind a V-shaped obstacle. Detour tasks are an excellent paradigm to investigate both spatial, and social problem-solving in non-human animals. A reward (in the case of goats, a small piece of dry pasta) is placed behind the barrier and in order to gain the reward, the tested goats had to detour the obstacle. Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? However, solving this task has been proven to be very difficult for many animal species because they have to actively increase their distance from the reward in order to access it. So what we did was test goats in this task: One group received no demonstration from a human and had to solve the task alone. However, another group saw a human detouring the obstacle and placing the reward behind it before they had to solve the task.
We found that a single presentation by a human solving the detour resulted in goats being able to solve the task faster compared to the group that did not see a demonstration. Furthermore, nearly all subjects that received a demonstration used the same route as the demonstrator in the subsequent test. Thus, goats picked up some information from the human demonstrator during this task. Our next steps will be to determine which kind of information they are exactly paying attention to.
Our findings show that animals that have been primarily domesticated for food production are capable of perceiving information from humans, in a similar manner to companion animals such as dogs. This kind of research will not only help raise awareness for the complex inner mental lives of farm animals but will also improve the welfare of millions of livestock animals in the long term.