Animal Intelligence: Why Scientists Tested The Cognitive Power Of Goats

By Ben Wolford on March 26, 2014 3:18 PM EDT

Goats are pretty smart, as researchers recently discovered. The findings bolster scientists' understanding of intelligence evolution. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Goats are pretty smart, as researchers recently discovered. The findings bolster scientists' understanding of intelligence evolution. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Goats are pretty smart. When scientists recently put them to the test, they proved to have a mighty gift for long-term memory relative to their smallish brains. And most goats could learn a task after only being shown how to do it 12 times.

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"Our results challenge the common misconception that goats aren't intelligent animals — they have the ability to learn complex tasks and remember them for a long time," said Alan McElligott of the University of London, in a statement. McElligott is the co-author of a study that appeared Wednesday in the journal Frontiers in Zoology and has helped to vindicate goats the world over.

But why study goats' brains in the first place? Scientists don't completely understand why some animals are smarter than others. Or, to put it another way, they don't understand what causes intelligence to evolve. In searching for experimentally provable explanations, however, they've developed some theories about why, say, primates like humans and chimpanzees are so much smarter than cows or pigs.

The thinking of these scientists boils down to two schools. One, called the "behavioral flexibility hypothesis," says evolution favors animals bright enough to forage for food and remember where they can find shelter. The other, known as the "social brain hypothesis," believes the animals better suited for social calculation, like sharing resources and fighting enemies in packs, can avoid predation and live longer.

To better understand these two views, researchers have spent a lot of time studying animals with big, complex brains, the valedictorians of the animal kingdom. Examples are primates, birds (their brains are fairly big relative to their size), and dogs. But what about the small-brained animals, like goats and other ungulates? McElligott and his colleagues wanted to know what nature's D students could tell us about cognitive evolution.

To find out, four British researchers got 12 goats together and taught them how to open a box of food by pulling and then lifting a lever. After 12 tries, most of them learned it. They quizzed the goats on the skill after a month. Then after 10 months the goats were tested again. After all that time, they still remembered how to do it in less than two minutes. "The speed at which the goats completed the task at 10 months compared to how long it took them to learn indicates excellent long-term memory," co-author Elodie Briefer said.

This result was pretty significant for the social brain vs. forager brain debate. Why? Because goats have tiny brains, and they don't appear to learn from social behavior, but rather from the need to find food in difficult environments. The authors wrote that "relatively intelligent species do not always preferentially learn socially. We propose 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." 

It could also explain why goats are so good at adapting to new landscapes, McElligott said, though that wouldn't be true of the domesticated goats they've worked with. Biologists generally agree that domestication shrinks animals brains and makes them less intelligent. "We would need to perform a similar study with wild goats to be sure," he said.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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