Goats that take more risks get more food

Studying innovation in animal behaviour is difficult, say psychologists. Innovation in animals is determined by the way they solve new problems or if they find new ways to solve old problems. 

When studying animal innovation, most animals are scared or cautious about new things, especially new objects, near them. Also, most animal psychology studies focus on birds (crows and parrots are very innovative) and primates (chimpanzees, monkeys, gorillas, etc.). 

Psychology students at the University of Barcelona, Spain, conducted a recent study on animal innovation and cognition, and published the results in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Alvaro Caicoya and his research team wanted to study animals that were not birds or primates – i.e., animals not usually known for being innovative. They looked at 13 species of hoofed mammals (ungulates) – a total of 111 animals in zoos in Spain and Germany. 

The researchers put a cup with a lid in the animal enclosures. About 38% of the 111 animals avoided the ‘unfamiliar’ object and 62% approached it. A total of 40 individual hoofed animals managed to take the lid off the cup to reach the food inside.

Dromedaries (one-humped camels) and goats were the best ungulates at getting the food from the cup – 86% of dromedaries and 69% of goats. 

The ungulates that were most willing to do the task to get the food were those living in complex social groups or were domesticated (such as camels and goats). 

When the researchers studied more about the goats, they found that outcast goats or goats low in the hierarchy had less fear of new objects (the cups) in their enclosures, more willingness to explore the objects, and a greater chance of getting the rewards (food) in the objects. Therefore, the goats that took the greatest risks got the most food.

Photographer: Martina Nicolls


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