Goats show higher behavioural flexibility than sheep in a spatial detour task

The ability to adapt to changing environments is crucial for survival and has evolved based on socio-ecological factors. Goats and sheep are closely related, with similar social structures, body sizes and domestication levels, but different feeding ecologies, i.e. goats are browsers and sheep are grazers. We investigated whether goats' reliance on more patchily distributed food sources predicted an increased behavioural flexibility compared to sheep. We tested 21 goats and 28 sheep in a spatial A-not-B detour task. Subjects had to navigate around a straight barrier through a gap at its edge. After one, two, three or four of these initial A trials, the gap was moved to the opposite end and subjects performed four B trials. Behaviourally more flexible individuals should move through the new gap faster, while those less behaviourally flexible should show greater perseveration. While both species showed an accuracy reduction following the change of the gap position, goats recovered from this perseveration error from the second B trial onwards, whereas sheep did so only in the fourth B trial, indicating differences in behavioural flexibility between the species. This higher degree of flexibility in goats compared to sheep could be linked to differences in their foraging strategies.

Raoult, C. M. C., Osthaus, B., Hildebrand, A. C. G., McElligott, A. G., Nawroth, C. (2021) Goats show higher behavioural flexibility than sheep in a spatial detour task. Royal Society Open Science 8: 201627. doi: 10.1098/rsos.201627

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