Introduction: The computational demands of sociality (maintaining group cohesion, reducing conflict) and ecological problems (extractive foraging, memorizing resource locations) are the main drivers proposed to explain the evolution cognition. Different predictions follow, about whether animals would preferentially learn new tasks socially or not, but the prevalent view today is that intelligent species should excel at social learning. However, the predictions were originally used to explain primate cognition, and studies of species with relatively smaller brains are rare. By contrast, domestication has often led to a decrease in brain size, which could affect cognition. In domestic animals, the relaxed selection pressures compared to a wild environment could have led to reduced social and physical cognition. Goats possess several features commonly associated with advanced cognition, such as successful colonization of new environments and complex fission-fusion societies. Here, we assessed goat social and physical cognition as well as long-term memory of a complex two-step foraging task (food box cognitive challenge), in order to investigate some of the main selection pressures thought to affect the evolution of ungulate cognition.
Results: The majority of trained goats (9/12) successfully learned the task quickly; on average, within 12 trials. After intervals of up to 10 months, they solved the task within two minutes, indicating excellent long-term memory. The goats did not learn the task faster after observing a demonstrator than if they did not have that opportunity. This indicates that they learned through individual rather than social learning.
Conclusions: The individual learning abilities and long-term memory of goats highlighted in our study suggest that domestication has not affected goat physical cognition. However, these cognitive abilities contrast with the apparent lack of social learning, suggesting that relatively intelligent species do not always preferentially learn socially. We propose that goat cognition, and maybe more generally ungulate cognition, is mainly driven by the need to forage efficiently in harsh environments and feed on plants that are difficult to access and to process, more than by the computational demands of sociality. Our results could also explain why goats are so successful at colonizing new environments.
Briefer, E. F., Haque, S., Baciadonna, L., & McElligott, A. G. (2014). Goats excel at learning and remembering a highly novel cognitive task. Frontiers in zoology, 11(1), 20.