“When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you,” goes the lyric to the popular song, recorded variously by Louis Armstrong, Dean Martin and Doris Day. And what the songwriters proclaimed for people also holds true for goats, say researchers from Queen Mary University of London.
A 2016 study from the university and led by Alan McElligott provided “strong evidence” for complex communication between goats and humans, similar to those found in species bred to become pets or working animals, such as dogs and horses.
Now the same group of scientists say goats can differentiate between human facial expressions – and much prefer to interact with happy people.
The study, which provides the first evidence of how goats read human emotional expressions, implies that the ability of animals to perceive human facial cues is not limited to those with a long history of domestication for one-on-one companionship.
In the journal Royal Society Open Science, McElligott, first author Christian Nawroth, and colleagues describe how 20 goats responded to images of happy and angry human facial expressions, and found that they preferred to interact with the happy faces.
“The study has important implications for how we interact with livestock and other species, because the abilities of animals to perceive human emotions might be widespread and not just limited to pets,” says McElligott.
The study involved the researchers showing goats pairs of unfamiliar grey-scale static human faces, each showing the same individual making happy and angry facial expressions.
They found that images of happy faces elicited more pronounced responses in the goats. The animals looked at the images, approached them and explored them with their snouts. This was particularly the case when the happy faces were positioned on the right-hand side of the test arena, suggesting that goats use the left hemisphere of their brains to process positive emotion.
The previous Queen Mary University study explained that goats are “highly intelligent, capable of complex communication with humans, and are able to form bonds with us – treating us as potential partners to help in problem-solving situations”.
“We already knew that goats are very attuned to human body language, but we did not know how they react to different human emotional expressions, such as anger and happiness,” says Nawroth.
“Here, we show for the first time that goats do not only distinguish between these expressions, but they also prefer to interact with happy ones.”
The research has implications for understanding how animals process human emotions.
Report co-author Natalia Albuquerque says the study of emotion perception has demonstrated abilities in dogs and horses, but before now evidence had not been found that animals such as goats were capable of reading human faces.
“Our results open new paths to understanding the emotional lives of all domestic animals,” she says.
Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
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