The cognitive capabilities of farm animals: categorisation learning in dwarf goats (Capra hircus)
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The ability to establish categories enables organisms to classify stimuli, objects and events by assessing perceptual, associative or rational similarities and provides the basis for higher cognitive processing. The cognitive capabilities of farm animals are receiving increasing attention in applied ethology, a development driven primarily by scientifically based efforts to improve animal welfare. The present study investigated the learning of perceptual categories in Nigerian dwarf goats (Capra hircus) by using an automated learning device installed in the animals’ pen. Thirteen group-housed goats were trained in a closed-economy approach to discriminate artificial two-dimensional symbols presented in a four-choice design. The symbols belonged to two categories: category I, black symbols with an open centre (rewarded) and category II, the same symbols but filled black (unrewarded). One symbol from category I and three different symbols from category II were used to define a discrimination problem. After the training of eight problems, the animals were presented with a transfer series containing the training problems interspersed with completely new problems made from new symbols belonging to the same categories. The results clearly demonstrate that dwarf goats are able to form categories based on similarities in the visual appearance of artificial symbols and to generalise across new symbols. However, the goats had difficulties in discriminating specific symbols. It is probable that perceptual problems caused these difficulties. Nevertheless, the present study suggests that goats housed under farming conditions have well-developed cognitive abilities, including learning of open-ended categories. This result could prove beneficial by facilitating animals’ adaptation to housing environments that favour their cognitive capabilities.
KeywordsDwarf goats Automated learning device Closed-economy Visual discrimination Perceptual categorisation
We thank Katrin Siebert and Dieter Sehland for excellent technical and experimental help. We are also grateful to three anonymous reviewers for commenting on an earlier version of the manuscript. This work was supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (LA 1187/5-1).
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