Goats get a lot of love on the internet. They get less on the pages of animal science diaries.
The darlings of such research are mostly primates, whales, dolphins, dogs and horses. Goats on the other hand "are not considered the smartest cookies", said Christian Nawroth, agricultural scientist at the Leibniz Institute for Farm Animal Biology in Germany.
But Nawroth knows it differently. He uses words like "creative" and "thoughtful" to describe goats. And based on the results of his latest research, he insists that the animals are also "complex".
Goat subjects that Nawroth and his colleagues at the Queen Mary University in London were working on had already been shown to be adept at reading subtle human body language. Now the researchers have discovered that goats can also distinguish happy human faces from sad – and they prefer to be happy.
The results of the new study, in which scientists observed how 20 goats responded to pairs of black-and-white images of unknown people showing the two facial expressions, showed that goats are "even more complex than we thought," said co-author Natalia Albuquerque, a doctoral student at the University of Sao Paolo.
The goats spent 50 percent more time approaching and jogging the happy photos, and in just over half of the trials, they first had contact with the happy face, said Nawroth, the lead author of the study. . They first swung to the evil one with 30 percent; in the rest they ignored both faces, he said.
"We humans are a very different species and we express ourselves in a very different way – even our students are different," said Albuquerque. "If goats are sensitive to our facial expressions … it means they have very complex psychological abilities."
It also puts goats in a rare company. Other animals, such as sheep, had shown that they could recognize human faces. But only dogs and horses had previously shown an ability to distinguish between expressions. Whether the new finding means that goats understand what emotion conveys a human expression is unknown – only dogs have been able to do so – but it means that they have at least taken the first step in that matched process, Albuquerque said.
It is important because of the type of domestication goats underwent, the authors said.
Unlike dogs and horses, who have lived in close contact with humans for thousands of years as companions and workers, goats were domesticated to produce meat, milk, skin and fur. It may be that when people selected individual goats for tameness, there was a possibility to distinguish human expressions, according to the study, published in Royal Society Open Science.
Or it may be that the goat participants of this study, all residents of the friendly, face-filled Buttercups Sanctuary in South East England, have improved that skill. Although some may have been abused by people earlier in life, all those tested had lived in the sanctuary for at least a year, Nawroth said.
"They are in a very nice, fun environment," said Albuquerque. "People always bring dried pasta, that's their favorite food ever." (And it is why dried pasta was used in training for studies of research.)
But she said that the experience of the goats with happy expressions makes the results of the study less interesting from a scientific point of view.
And that achievement should, according to her, make people think. If we see goat nuance in us, should we not see a nuance in them?
"They probably feel, and they probably want certain things, but maybe this also applies to all kinds of cattle," Albuquerque said. "If we show that goats are more complex than we thought, maybe all non-human animals are more complex than we thought."