No kidding: Goats prefer happy faces

Goats are able to tell the difference between happy and angry human expressions, according to research by life scientists at Queen Mary University of London and the University of Sao Paulo.
Vendors chat as they stand by a goat at a local market in Hebron on Aug 17, 2018. Researchers found happy pictures led to greater interaction from goats that looked at the images.
Vendors chat as they stand by a goat at a local market in Hebron on Aug 17, 2018. Researchers found happy pictures led to greater interaction from goats that looked at the images.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (REUTERS) - Goats shown happy and angry human faces prefer the happy ones, according to research published by a team of life scientists from Britain, Germany and Brazil.

The study, led by Dr Alan McElligott of London's Queen Mary University, is among the first to provide evidence that goats can read human expressions.

Dogs, horses and pandas can also distinguish between different human facial expressions, similar studies have shown.

Researchers tested 20 goats at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in Maidstone, Kent, about 64km south-east of London, using pairs of black-and-white photographs of the same person.

The photos, pinned at one end of a gated arena about 1.3m apart, included one of a person smiling and another of the same person looking angry.

Researchers found the happy pictures led to greater interaction from the goats that looked at the images, for instance, by examining them with their snouts.

"The goats really did stop in the enclosure and look at the photographs and examined them closely. They didn't just walk over and try to pull the photographs off the wall or chew on them or anything like that," Dr McElligott told Reuters.

Dr McElligott, who now works at the University of Roehampton, says the study has implications for understanding how animals process human emotions.

"These findings have important implications for our understanding of livestock in general, not just animals that were domesticated as pets or companion animals such as dogs and horses. We hope our research can now go forward using species such as sheep or cattle, or indeed, pigs."

Dr McElligott also hopes the study might help change our understanding of the humble goat.

"There's a public perception of goats being stupid. So, for the public to realise that goats can actually tell the difference between an angry and a happy face, we hope (this) will promote good animal welfare for this species."

The study found that the goats were more inclined to approach a happy face if it was positioned on the right of their enclosure, suggesting that goats, like humans, use the left hemisphere of their brains to process positive emotions.

Dr McElligott is already planning the next step in his research.

"What we would like to do is determine if goats can tell the difference between various human voices. For example, if they can tell the difference between familiar and unfamiliar people. I'm pretty sure they can, but we need to study that," he said. "Also, if they can tell the difference between an angry versus a happy human voice, because that has important implications on how farmers interact with their livestock."

The study, which Dr McElligott co-authored with Dr Christian Nawroth of Queen Mary University, Dr Natalia Albuquerque and Dr Carine Savalli from Brazil's University of Sao Paulo, and Dr Marie-Sophie Single from the Technical University of Munich, was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.