Barnyard animals are more empathetic than you might have thought, a new study has found.
Goats are able to distinguish between positive and negative emotions in another goat’s calls and react to their fellows’ feelings, according to a paper published in the journal Frontiers in Zoology by researchers from Queen Mary University of London, ETH Zürich and the University of Turin
Working at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in Kent, UK, the researchers recorded goats’ “positive” calls, when they were approached with food pellets, and “negative” calls, when they were isolated or watching another goat eat food pellets.
The team then played these recordings to other goats and observed their reactions. The goats had different physiological responses to the different sounds, with their heart rates becoming much more erratic when they listened to the “positive” calls.
A previous experiment at Queen Mary University of London, which led to the latest study, determined that goats could differentiate between the sounds of “friend” goats and “stranger” goats.
The study details the importance of communicating emotions from an evolutionary standpoint, explaining: “Negative emotions enable individuals to respond appropriately to potentially life-threatening situations.”
It builds on previous research finding that horses can distinguish between angry and happy human faces and that cattle and pigs change their own behavior based on the tone of their companions’ calls.
Goats in particular are “highly social” and may use their communicative calls to “strengthen social bonds and group cohesion,” according to the researchers.
The study concludes that non-human animals, in addition to experiencing their own emotions, “might also be sensitive to the emotional states of other individuals.”
Livio Favaro, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Turin and one of the study’s authors, told CNN that the findings could have “huge real-world implications.”
Future studies could prove the existence of “emotional contagion,” Favaro said, or “whether the calls uttered by one animal can somehow affect both the inner state and the vocalizations of another animal.”
“This might suggest we should rethink the way we treat livestock,” he said. “Applied research can then look for solutions to improve the quality of lives using this information.”
Graeme Shannon, a zoology lecturer at Bangor University in Wales, called the findings “very interesting,” telling CNN that they demonstrated the “advanced cognitive abilities of goats” or “their ability to handle and process complex information from the environment around them.”
“Scientists have been aware of the existence of animal emotions for many years, but the challenge has been to clearly measure these mental states, particularly discriminating between positive and negative responses,” Shannon said. “How animals actually experience emotion and how it varies between species is very difficult to answer, but it is a key area of research for animal welfare research.”
“There is still much to learn about the many varied facets of emotion and how they have evolved,” he added.