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Research Shows Goats
Recognize Voice Calls

By Alan Harman

Researchers at Queen Mary, University of London, found a mother goat is able to pick out her own baby from its voice alone by the time it is just five days old.

A study of their findings, published in the journal Animal Cognition, measured the individuality of the goats’ calls and the ability of goats to recognize the individual differences.

Scientists Elodie Briefer and Alan McElligott from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences found that does and kids react more to the calls from their own kids and mothers than they do from other goats they know.

Even newborn Nigerian Dwarf kids learn to quickly respond to their mother’s voice as she calls to them while licking and encouraging them to her side. London researchers have now studied voice recognition in goats and concluded that mothers respond to their own kid voice calls just as much as kids respond to their mother’s calls. Photo by Jennifer Stultz

"Goats in the wild have an anti-predator strategy called ‘hiding’ where the young stay hidden in vegetation during the first week after being born to avoid being detected by predators." Briefer said. "As hiders are isolated, they don’t move around a lot and are mostly silent to avoid detection from predators. We thought kid calls would not necessarily be individualized and therefore not easy to recognize."

"A mother and kid rely a lot on smell to recognize one another and, in the wild, during the first week of their lives, the animals hide in vegetation and don’t call much," Briefer told the British Broadcasting Corp. "It’s a strategy they use to avoid predators. The mothers call to the kids when they want them to come and feed, so we expected that kids would recognize the mothers’ voices, but not vice versa."

Briefer and McElligott measured the individuality of calls and the vocal recognition during this "hiding" phase at one-week-old and later on after they had joined the social group, at five-weeks-old. The research was carried out at White Post Farm in Nottinghamshire.

The researchers played recordings of kids’ bleats to female goats and watched the reaction.

"We played the goat’s recordings of their own kids and those of other kids that were exactly the same age," Briefer said. "Even kids that were five- to six-days-old, we could see the mothers responding more to the voices of their own babies."

The researchers report that on hearing the voice of their own offspring, the females would react much faster. They would look towards the speaker the sound was coming from and called back in response.

"Studying the link between vocal signals and species ecology can help us understand how animal communication evolves," Briefer said. "We were surprised when we found that even at one week, both mothers and kids react more to calls from their own kids and mothers than those from other familiar goats. The ability of goats to recognize each other’s calls and respond appropriately suggests some robust mechanisms of memorization and recognition in goats."

Briefer said the research was carried out because studying how domestic livestock behave and communicate is very important for good animal welfare.

"This helps us understand just how smart these animals are," she said. "Farmers might be able to adapt their own practices to accommodate this natural behavior."

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