These are the findings of a new study by a group of international researchers from Canterbury Christ Church University, Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, the Leibniz Institute for Farm Animal Biology and Queen Mary University of London, and published by the Royal Society Open Science.
For undomesticated animals, the ability to adapt is crucial for survival and enables them to react swiftly to a changing environment to find and exploit new food sources. For domestic animals, the results from this study offers a better understanding of the animals’ behavioural flexibility that could help to improve animal welfare guidelines by considering species-specific requirements in husbandry practices, such as moving and handling.
Dr Britta Osthaus, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Canterbury Christ Church University and co-author of the report, explained: “Sheep and goats have many things in common: They are closely related genetically, roughly the same size, have similar social structures, and have both been domesticated by humans over approximately the same amount of time. They do, however, differ greatly when it comes to their foraging strategies: goats are browsers and sheep are grazers. Goats forage low-fibre vegetation from various heights and feed on more patchily distributed food. Sheep are typical grazers, feeding on high-fibre herbaceous species, feeding from more evenly distributed food. Our study was to investigate whether goats, as browsers, have greater behavioural flexibility, compared to sheep.”
The study, conducted at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in Maidstone, Kent and at the Agroscope research centre in Switzerland, investigated how well the animals were able to navigate around obstacles to reach food.
One animal at a time was led to the end of a small enclosure. Another person stood at the opposite end offering food. In between was a fence with a gap - the direct path was blocked each time. The researchers observed the animals’ behaviour, specifically, whether they moved directly towards the gap, and recorded the time it took them to reach the food. After a few rounds, the position of the gap in the fence was changed. The animals then repeated the test.
In the first round with the newly located gap, the goats managed to walk around the obstacle easier and faster. Both the sheep and goats were initially puzzled by the new position of the gap and needed a few attempts to adjust to the new situation. Afterwards, they made fewer mistakes.
Dr Osthaus continued: “Goats appear to adapt better and more accurately to new situations and move with less perseveration around the obstacle when the gap has changed. This suggests that they are more cognitively flexible than sheep.
“One possible reason for the differences could be their different foraging strategies. Differences in foraging strategies are closely linked to decision-making processes, and goats have the more flexible foraging strategy to and sheep.
“Behavioural flexibility is favoured in species exploiting diverse food sources or inhabiting environments with highly unpredictable resources. Goats, as browsers, rely on patchily distributed food sources that are less predictable than the more evenly distributed food sources that sheep, grazers, rely on.
“Further research needs to be conducted, e.g. by extending the range of species, to better understand the impact of such as feeding strategies on behavioural flexibility in animals. However, the results from this study do begin to offer a better understanding of these animals’ behaviour and could offer ways to help improve animal welfare guidelines by considering the different cognitive skills and needs of individual species in husbandry practices.”
The report, Goats show higher behavioural flexibility than sheep in a spatial detour task, 2021, can be read here.