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Joy or sadness? Goats can vocalize and differentiate emotions

Research reveals that animals can detect subtle emotional changes from the screeching of other goats.

Goats are intelligent and sociable animals. A new study shows that they can differentiate feelings of joy or sadness in other goats when they hear their sound.
HOW ANIMALS PERCEIVE the world around them is still a mystery to us in many ways.

It can be tempting to anthropomorphize these expressive and sociable animals. But the truth is, we still know very little about what—and how—nonhuman animals think and feel. However, little by little, our window may be opening, expanding our knowledge of animal cognition.

This applies even to smart, sociable animals like goats, whose charisma has inspired a whole subgenre on YouTube: dozens of videos show the goats’ funny and cute moments and collect millions of views. Sanctuaries such as Goats of Anarchy, which care for abandoned goats, have thousands of Instagram followers and great engagement.

A new study published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Zoology on July 10, 2019 confirmed that goats can differentiate feelings of joy or sadness through the sound they emit. In other words, they can distinguish feelings from each other. This discovery has major implications for the treatment of goats kept in captivity—whether they are kept for meat, milk, wool, or as companionship.

At a more basic level, according to Luigi Basadonna, lead author of the study, it is possible to say that “goats are aware of the environment in which they live”, as are horses, primates, sheep and other non-human animals, which are capable of to perceive the emotions of their fellow men.

Confirmation that goats can detect feelings of joy or sadness in other goats…
Confirmation that goats can detect feelings of joy or sadness in other goats may have implications for the domestication of these animals.

Researchers involved in this study had previously concluded that goats can express emotions through their voices. Next, a larger team decided to explore whether goats could detect emotions in other goats. “If we don’t study the effect of emotions on others, we end up missing an important social aspect,” says Luigi Basadonna, a postdoctoral research assistant at Queen Mary University, London, and lead author of the study.

The group worked with 24 goats at the Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in Kent, England, which rescues abandoned and battered goats from the country’s south-east and surrounding areas.

hearing test
The researchers recorded individual screams of some goats as they expressed joy — when food was offered to them — and when they expressed slight frustration — at being isolated from the herd for five minutes, or when watching other goats feeding without being able to get close to the food .

Then they reproduced the vocalization to other goats equipped with heart monitors. They found that the goats were more attentive when the emotions in the vocalizations changed, indicating they were able to detect a difference. And listening to happy vocalizations was associated with greater variation in the length of time between heartbeats—a sign of good health in mammals.

The researchers did not expose the “frustrated” goats to specifically stressful scenarios, so the sounds they emitted were not distressing, explains Basadonna. To the human ear, the sound is almost identical to the sounds of happiness. Still, the goats were more attentive to negative sounds than to positive ones.

It’s a logical behavior, says Basadonna. “You need to be more alert to [the possibility of] a danger than when you’re at a party celebrating with friends.”

A goat was found hanging by its horns from an electrical network in Greece. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but how she got there is still a mystery.
Kristina Horback, an assistant professor in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California at Davis, was not surprised by the findings. “This makes evolutionary sense,” she says in an email. She emphasizes that it is beneficial for all animals, including humans, to be able to use signals emitted by others “that communicate something in the environment” – whether good or bad – “that could affect their survival”.
What does this mean for goats?
The important thing from now on, according to Basadonna, is trying to determine if emotions are contagious in any way. For example, when a goat recognizes the suffering of another goat, would it feel the same?

If the answer is yes, he wonders what people who raise and love goats would do with this information. “If we treat an animal badly,” he says, making a sound of suffering, “there could be consequences…which [probably] could spill over into a group of animals. It’s up to us to decide whether we will use it positively or negatively.”

Basinadonna hopes the study will help highlight the complexity of goats and that it can serve as a basis for further research into how they communicate and relate to each other. “It’s not uncommon to see the same goats live together for the rest of their lives,” he explains.

empathy and animals
There is also the issue of empathy—the ability not just to feel but to understand another’s emotion. Studies have been conducted on the difficulty of assessing empathy in non-human animals. Some studies have shown that many animals, including rats, chickens and dogs, at least appear to show signs of empathy. But other studies question whether these animals empathize in the same way that we humans do.

Leanne Lauricella, founder of Goats of Anarchy, a sanctuary for goats with special needs located in New Jersey, wouldn’t be surprised if other studies confirm that goats can feel each other’s emotions. She has several stories about the complex relationship her rescued goats develop.

“They feed each other. Couples or groups together eat together, play together and sunbathe together,” she says. “When one of our cubs lost its twin brother, another goat lay down beside him, cuddled up to him and comforted him.”

“The abilities of goats are sometimes underestimated,” says Basadonna.


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