LONDON – Goats shown happy and angry human faces prefer the happy ones, according to research published by a team of life scientists from Britain, Germany and Brazil.
The study, led by Alan McElligott at London’s Queen Mary University, is among the first to provide evidence that goats can read human expressions. Dogs, horses and pandas can also distinguish between facial expressions, similar studies have shown.
Researchers tested 20 goats at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in Maidstone, Kent, using pairs of black-and-white photographs of the same person. The photos, pinned at one end of a gated arena about 1.3 metres apart, included one of a person smiling and another of the same person looking angry. Researchers found the happy pictures led to greater interaction from the goats that looked at the images, for instance, by examining them with their snouts.
“The goats really did stop in the enclosure and look at the photographs and examined them closely,” says McElligott. “They didn’t just walk over and try to pull the photographs off the wall or chew on them.”
McElligott, who now works at the University of Roehampton, says the study has implications for understanding how animals process human emotions: “These findings have important implications for our understanding of livestock in general, not just animals that were domesticated as pets or companion animals such as dogs and horses. We hope our research can now go forward using species such as sheep or cattle or pigs.”
McElligott also hopes the study may help change our understanding of goats.
“There’s a public perception of goats being stupid,” he says. “So for the public to realize that they can actually tell the difference between an angry and a happy face, we hope (this) will promote good animal welfare for this species.”
The study found that the goats were more inclined to approach a happy face if it was positioned on the right of their enclosure, suggesting that, like humans, they use the left hemisphere of their brains to process positive emotion.
“What we would like to do is determine if goats can tell the difference between various human voices. For example, between familiar and unfamiliar people,” says McElligott, who is planning the next stage of research. “Also if they can tell the difference between an angry versus a happy human voice because that has important implications on how farmers interact with livestock.”
The study, which McElligott co-authored with Christian Nawroth at Queen Mary University, Natalia Albuquerque and Carine Savalli from Brazil’s University of Sao Paulo, and Marie-Sophie Single from the Technical University of Munich, was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.