Goats are not as dumb as you think, say scientists

Goats are actually quite intelligent. They have excellent long-term memory and prefer to learn things on their own, say scientists.

Brian Squibb
New research from Queen Mary University of London shows goats learn how to solve complicated tasks quickly and can recall how to perform them for at least 10 months, which might explain their remarkable ability to adapt to harsh environments.

When most people think of a goat, the word "intelligent" doesn't immediately leap to mind.

But a new study challenges this perception, indicating that goats are not only good at performing complicated tasks, they also have an "excellent long-term memory."

The findings of the study were published in a paper titled "Goats excel at learning and remembering a highly novel cognitive task" in the journal Frontiers in Zoology today.

At Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats, in Kent, UK, researchers initially exposed 12 goats (7 males and 5 females of various breeds) to a puzzle-box mostly used for studying primates. This involved a complicated two-step foraging task where first the goats had to pull out a lever with their lips or teeth using a string. They then had to lift the lever up using their mouth or muzzle to get at the food (one or two pieces of dry penne pasta and a few grass pellets) that dropped from a dispenser into a feeding bowl.

Two of the goats had to be removed from the experiments, because they tried to use their horns instead of their muzzles and "therefore risked damaging the box," say researchers.

Like most animals, the goats needed a demonstration at first to show them how the task was done, says Alan G. McElligott from Queen Mary University of London, who is also the senior author on the paper. After subjecting them to a few demonstrations most of the trained goats (9/12) successfully learned the task; "on average, within 12 trials," according to the authors.

Researchers also wanted to study social learning behavior among goats. Therefore, before the learning sessions, some of the goats also watched other goats completing the task. In this case, the goats did not learn the task faster. This goes to show that goats "learned through individual rather than social learning," researchers noted in their paper.

To further test their long-term memory, after an interval of 10 months, the scientists challenged the same lot with the same foraging experiment. All of them instantly got to the food in a matter of seconds, says McElligott. The longest one took about 2 minutes, he added. This time they were not exposed to any demonstrations.

"The speed at which the goats completed the task at 10 months compared to how long it took them to learn indicates excellent long-term memory," said co-author Dr. Elodie Briefer, now based at ETH Zurich in a press release.

The study explains why goats are so "successful in colonising new environments, though we would need to perform a similar study with wild goats to be sure," McElligott said.

Individual learning abilities of goats along with their long-term memory suggest that "domestication has not affected goat physical cognition. However, these cognitive abilities contrast with the apparent lack of social learning, suggesting that relatively intelligent species do not always preferentially learn socially," say authors.

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