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Think Goats Are Dumb? Think Again!

June 04, 2014

Story at-a-glance

  • Many people assume goats are none too bright, perhaps because they’re rumored to eat garbage and spend a large portion of their day head butting each other. However, a new study published in Frontiers in Zoology puts to rest the notion that goats are just slow-witted farm animals. As it turns out, they are capable problem solvers with long memories.
  • The study involved training goats to solve a puzzle to receive a food reward. Nine of 12 goats were able to solve the puzzle in about four tries, and 10 months later, they were able to remember how to solve the same puzzle and receive their treat in less than a minute.
  • The researchers also learned -- using novice goats that watched the trained goats solve the puzzle -- that the animals don’t learn by watching. It could be goats prefer to learn by doing tasks on their own, or it could be they don’t have the intellect required to learn by watching.
  • The researchers concluded that while goats are by no means dumb animals, they don’t possess the intelligence of, say, dolphins or chimpanzees.

By Dr. Becker

Many people assume goats aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer, probably because they’re farm animals, and farm animals aren’t generally considered smart. But the truth is that goats are actually very intelligent.

A new study published in the journal Frontiers in Zoology1 suggests that goats have less in common with their farm counterparts than with more clever ungulates. The researchers, who were from Queen Mary University of London and the Institute of Agricultural Science in Switzerland, set out to prove their suspicion that goats might be smarter than they appear.

Goats Solve a Puzzle for a Food Reward

For starters, goats create complex social structures. They are also highly skilled at getting to hard-to-reach food sources (for example, some goats climb trees). Their lifespan is relatively long, so they are able to build a mental library of memories and skills. Also, despite the myth that goats eat garbage, they are actually very selective eaters.

On the downside, domestication is thought to “dumb down” animals, who lose skills through lack of use that their wild counterparts retain. Domesticated goats, for example, are less accomplished socially and in their foraging skills than wild goats.

To evaluate the intelligence of the goats in the study, the researchers gave them an “artificial fruit challenge” originally created for primate studies. In the challenge, fruit is placed inside a box, and the goats can only get to it by solving a puzzle. The puzzle called for the goats to use their teeth to pull on a rope, which activated a lever, which they then had to lift with their muzzle. If they correctly solved the puzzle, the food reward dropped out of the box.

In the first phase of the study, the researchers attempted to teach 12 goats to solve the puzzle. Nine of the 12 were able to master the task after around four tries. Of the three who didn’t do well, two tried to use their horns to pry open the box, so they were disqualified. The third goat couldn’t grasp the concept after 20 plus tries, so the researchers gave up on her.

Goats Remember How to Solve the Puzzle 10 Months Later

Ten months after the first phase of the study was completed, the researchers presented the nine “winning” goats with the same food box puzzle to evaluate how long it would take them to remember how to solve it. All the goats got right to work and were enjoying their fruit in under a minute!

According to Elodie Briefer, lead author of the study, “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.”

Interestingly, during another trial the researchers brought in novice goats to observe the puzzle-solvers as they accessed the food reward. Then the newbies were given the chance to solve the puzzle, but could not. This, according to the researchers, could mean that goats do better learning tasks on their own, or they are simply not adept at learning by watching others – a skill certain animals like dolphins excel at.

So it appears that while goats are by no means dull-witted creatures, they probably aren’t on an intellectual par with chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants or other highly intelligent animals.

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Sources and References

  • 1 Briefer, E F et al, "Goats excel at learning and remember a highly novel cognitive task," Frontiers in Zoology, 2014, Volume 11, Issue 20
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