24 March 2017

Looking at Goats

Welcome back. Today’s blog topic was chosen by popular request, which is to say my wife Vicki suggested it.

Do you remember last January’s post, Roosters’ Crowing? There was a parenthetical comment about a goat with a penchant for hanging out in a cattle trough. Watching that goat’s antics got Vicki started, and then she heard about some unusual goats at the Saturday morning coffee klatch.

Warren’s daughter Rachel
and young goat during
long-ago visit to
Puerto Rico.

There are books and articles on everything you might care to know about goats and way too many videos of prancing young goats and goats climbing, being inquisitive and getting into trouble. Other than a bit of background, I’ll focus on two research studies and those unusual goats.

Domestic Goats
Have you ever visited a petting zoo or farm that had goats? Those were domestic goats. That sounds obvious, but there’s more to it. Taxonomically speaking, “domestic goats” (Capra aegagrus hircus) are one of several subspecies of “wild goat” (Capra aegagrus).


Wild goats in China’s
Tien Shan Mountains.
To confuse the matter, wild goats differ from “mountain goats,” which have their own genus and species (Oreamnos americanus) and only reside in the American Northwest. Apparently, goats I saw in China’s Tien Shan Mountains were wild goats.

The difference between wild and domestic goats is just what you’d expect, though you might be surprised that there are over 200 breeds of domestic goats. They vary markedly in size (Nigerian dwarf goats are shorter than 2 feet at the shoulder; Boer goats can weigh over 300 pounds) and in suitability for intended purpose, be it dairy, meat, fiber, land clearing or as pets.

Goat Intelligence
There’s a wealth of anecdotal reporting on goat smarts--for example, their ability to follow finger pointing, recognize people, respond to their names and open clip hooks and doorknobs.

Searching for blog topics three years ago, I filed away a small-sample study of goat intelligence. Researchers from Queen Mary University of London and the Swiss Institute of Agricultural Sciences worked with 12 goats to assess their ability to learn and remember a two-step task for retrieving food from a transparent plastic box--first pulling a rope to access a lever, then lifting the lever.


Goat executing a two-step task for retrieving food
(from www.frontiersinzoology.com/content/11/1/20)
Overall, 9 of 12 goats learned the task either directly or with other goat demonstrators, and they learned quickly, on average, within 12 trials. The number of trials did not differ between goats with a demonstrator and those without, suggesting goats prefer to learn on their own rather than by watching others. After intervals of up to 10 months, the successfully trained goats solved the task again within two minutes, indicating excellent long-term memory.

Goats and Humans
Goats’ ability to follow a person’s gaze has been noted anecdotally, but it was tested within the past year by researchers from Queen Mary University of London.

Thirty-four goats were each given three 1-minute trials to retrieve food from a transparent plastic box on the floor; only two failed. The successful 32 goats were then split into two groups and individually tested with an unsolvable task--2 minutes to retrieve food from a transparent plastic box that could not be opened.

In both the initial trials and group test, one person was positioned near the food box and another was about eight feet away. During the group test, however, the person nearby faced the box for goats in one group, and he faced away for goats in the other group. The second person, positioned at a distance, looked at the box as a control for each test.

Videotape analysis showed the goats gazed earlier, longer and more frequently toward the person as well as between the box and the person, when the person faced forward than when he faced away.

The results provided strong evidence that goats exhibit audience-dependent, human-directed visual orienting and communicative behavior similar to that of dogs. At least on that score, goats would make good pets.

Wrap Up

The Saturday morning coffee topic was fainting goats, also called Tennessee fainting, wooden leg, stiff, nervous, scare and myotonic goat. The last seems most fitting since these goats suffer from the genetic disorder myotonia congenita.  

Fainting goat from 2006 video
 by jimmywan87

(www.youtube.com/watch?v=we9_CdNPuJg )
When goats with this condition are startled, their muscle cells can’t relax quickly after contraction. That few seconds of stiffness can cause the goats to fall over if they’re off-balance. They don’t actually faint or lose consciousness, and judging from their reaction and related conditions in people and some animals, it’s painless.

Logo of International
Fainting Goat
Association.
Myotonic goats are quiet, good-natured, don’t climb or jump, and have relatively heavy muscle mass and a high reproductive rate, making them a good choice for meat production or a pet. Although their number declined in the late 20th century, they’ve been recovering with the help of various groups, such as the International Fainting Goat Association.

Thanks for stopping by.

P.S.
Goat intelligence study in Frontiers in Zoology and on ScienceDaily website:
www.frontiersinzoology.com/content/11/1/20
www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140326092629.htm
Goat gazing behavior study in Biology Letters and on Science Alert website:
www.frontiersinzoology.com/content/11/1/20
www.sciencealert.com/goats-are-just-as-smart-and-loving-as-dogs-say-scientists
Wikipedia list of domestic goat breeds: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_goat_breeds
University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web review of domestic goats: animaldiversity.org/accounts/Capra_hircus
Fainting goats:
livestockconservancy.org/index.php/heritage/internal/tennfaint
wamc.org/post/dr-phillip-sponenberg-virginia-tech-fainting-goats
International Fainting Goat Assoc.: www.faintinggoat.com/
Example books on goats:
www.amazon.com/How-Raise-Goats-Everything-Updated/dp/0760343780
www.amazon.com/Raising-Goats-Dummies-Cheryl-Smith/dp/0470568992
www.amazon.com/Backyard-Goat-Introductory-Keeping-Enjoying/dp/1603427902
Example articles on goats:
modernfarmer.com/2016/05/lessons-from-raising-goats
modernfarmer.com/2013/09/find-right-goat/
www.vetstreet.com/our-pet-experts/want-a-backyard-goat-10-things-to-consider

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