Goats Are the Bleating Geniuses of the Barnyard

Have you herd? A goat's head's super smart.

Apr 1 2014, 7:20pm
Image: Grand Parc-Bordeaux/Flickr

While crows were getting major accolades for being as smart as children—as if that’s at all impressive—goats were quietly proving themselves to be not only internet-ready stars in the making, but the most clever ungulates—with an excellent long-term memory.

There are two main hypotheses to explain the evolution of cognition: one that says that the demands of living in a group—maintaining a group cohesion, reducing conflict, not poking each other with their horns in their weird buggy goat eyes—drives the evolution of cognition, and one that says that complex ecological demands—finding food, remembering where the good hay is, fooling trolls to cross bridges, etc—do.

Researchers at Queen Mary University of London trained goats to perform a two-step process to receive a treat. The goats had to pull out a lever with their lips or teeth using a rope (image a), then they had to lift the lever up using the mouth or muzzle (b) to make a food reward—pasta and grass—drop from a dispenser into a feeding bowl. Nine of the 12 goats quickly learned the task—faster even than chimpanzees. Only one goat actually failed, and two were disqualified for trying to use their horns to lift the lever rather than their mouths.

Image: Briefer et al. Frontiers in Zoology 2014

The researchers also had a goat demonstrator show what the goats needed to do, to see if the animals would learn faster if they saw one of their conspecifics doing the same. After all the literature on the subject—Three Billy Goats Gruff—has goats learning from their predecessors, so I’m glad it was tested here, even though, as it turns out, watching another goat do the steps didn’t help them learn any faster.

Interestingly enough, after intervals of up to 10 months, the goats were able to solve the task within two minutes, indicating excellent long-term memory.

So with the goats using their dexterous lips to lift levers, and remember how to do so, while not learning from their peers the researchers proposed that “goat cognition, and maybe more generally ungulate cognition, is mainly driven by the need to forage efficiently in harsh environments and feed on plants that are difficult to access and to process, more than by the computational demands of sociality.”

The demands of thriving efficiently in a harsh environment at the expense of sociality does make goats sound like idea candidates for e-sports—at least more so than, say, soccer. But this tweet is probably an April Fool’s Day joke.

If you thought goats were dumb or forgetful, this might come as a shock to you, but the lack of sociality isn’t a big surprise. Domestication means that goats rely less on each other, as they’re bred for meat and milk rather than their ability to communicate. That probably explains why goats are well known to be such jerks.