27 October, 2015

Goat Science! Your goat probably likes it when you pet them.

Through the good graces of my friend Elodie (who mostly does not blog right over here, but also doesn’t blog about her narrowboat on Monday I was introduced to Dr. Alan McElligott on Twitter, who is actually now in contention with Elodie for Andrea’s Favorite Scientist because he studies goats! And Dr. McElligott was kind enough to send me a big pile of his published articles on goat behavior and health, so if you never see me again it’s because I’m acquiring an informal undergraduate degree in Caprine Studies.

Dr. McElligott’s most recent study really charmed me, though, because it looked at heart rate as a measure of stress as some goats went about their daily lives. The goats in question live at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in the UK, where a herd of 125 or so of them are privileged to live and contribute to science. The paper is officially entitled Autonomic nervous system reactivity in a free-ranging mammal: effects of dominance rank and personality and if you are into statistics about goat heart rates, relative herd rankings, and quantifying the sociability of any given goat you can get a copy at that link. But hang with me for a sec and I will sum up for you, the goat-loving public, why this paper makes me happy.

Dr. McElligott et al basically went out and hooked up some goats with wireless ECG monitors, and then followed the goats at a distance recording their behavior so it could be plotted against heart rate. They had different categories of behavior: affiliative interactions (things goats do with their friends either human or goat), eating/drinking, resting, scratching, and agonistic interactions (conflicts with other goats, including headbutting, biting, and shoving other goats out of the way). The goats were does and wethers agest 4-13, and mostly of middling rank in the herd. If only calorie expenditure accounted for heart rate, you would expect hostile behaviors to have the highest heart rate, and resting to have the lowest heart rate.

However, that wasn’t at all what the team found. In fact, eating caused the highest heart rate among the goats, confirming what goatherds know: food is very, very exciting to goats. The lowest heart rate was found not among solo resting goats, but among goats engaged in friendly behaviors like mutual grooming and goat cuddle piles.

A cuddle pile of three goats. In front, Gwyn leans against Siri and chews her cud. Siri rests in the middle, facing the same direction as Gwyn. May is behind Siri but perpendicular to her, with her head resting on Siri's flank as she sleeps.
Science suggests these goats are very relaxed and enjoying the cuddle pile.

Even better, the study goats were allowed to approach humans voluntarily for scratching and petting, and the study found that these goats, too, had lower heart rates, which suggests that they were getting the same enjoyment and relaxation from voluntarily interacting with humans as they did from interacting with their goat friends.

May rests her forehead gently against my cheek as I scratch under her chin. Her eyes are half-closed and her ears are totally floppy.
Science seems to confirm that May is getting as much benefit from chin scratches as participating in cuddle piles.

The study also found that some goats are just more socially inclined than others, and these goats tend to have lower heart rate variability in general, i.e. they are calmer goats. Their heart rates are lower when being social with their friends, but the difference from their baseline heart rate isn’t as great as it is with other goats whose heart rates vary more dramatically. This strongly suggests that the squirrlier goats in a herd will benefit the most from having a goat friend who doesn’t antagonize them but will instead engage in mutual grooming and the formation of cuddle piles. More aggressive goats still need company, but the best fit for them is one of the more placid goats who doesn’t tend to react in extremes even to hostile interactions.

It’s really nice, though, to learn that by sitting quietly and allowing goats to approach me and discover the magic of cookies and clever monkey fingers that can scratch the itchy places even horns can’t reach I’m doing as much good for the goats as I am for me. I would still prefer it though if May didn’t insist on grooming me back, as goat methods of attempting to tame human hair are not particularly fun for the human, and being licked always makes me feel vaguely ashamed, as if I’m an incompetent baby goat who isn’t capable of keeping herself clean.

22 April, 2010

Science never ceases to amaze me

Cat Brain: A Step Toward the Electronic Equivalent. Science discovered cats are 83 times faster at cognitive tasks than our current best supercomputer, and decides to build a computer that works like a cat’s brain.

This can only end in tears. I’m picturing success, after many years, only to find that the computer only does what it wants to do, when it wants to do it, and demands food, sunbeams, and petting before it will even consider ignoring your request.

Tip of the hat to Rinalia at For the Pit Bulls, who found the article.