By Heather Yundt
There’s no kidding around about this — goats develop accents, a United Kingdom study suggests.
Scientists previously believed that the calls of goats, which have limited vocal abilities, were determined by genetics. Instead, this research found that kids — young goats — adapt their calls to their social group.
Elodie Briefer and Alan McElligott from the Queen Mary University of London recorded and analyzed the calls 23 goats between the ages of one and five weeks made to each other on a U.K. farm.
They found that kids that were full siblings had more similar calls at a young age, but as they got older, their calls became more like the calls of other goats in their social groups.
Most animal calls are genetically determined and are unaffected by the animal’s social environment. But previous research has found that some other animals with highly developed vocal abilities, such as whales, dolphins and bats, were able to alter their calls over time to adapt to individual and group identity.
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Other animals with more flexible vocal cords, such as parrots, can adjust their sounds to the animals and people around them. However, Briefer points out that there is a difference between mimicking and developing an accent.
“Mimicking is producing entirely new sounds, like parrots, that have never been heard before,” she said Tuesday. “(Parrots) hear humans speaking and then imitate continuously by producing an entirely new sound.”
Goats, on the other hand, adapt their calls to the sounds of their group mates’ calls, similar to what humans do.
“This is exactly what we have in humans when we develop accents, actually,” Briefer said. “If you’re speaking one language and you go to another country where they speak the same language, you still speak the same language but you change the way you pronounce things.”
The “novel” research, published in the scientific journal Animal Behaviour, suggests that scientists have previously underestimated the role of social environment in the development of animals’ communications.
Briefer says the ability to adjust a call based on the animal’s social environment probably also exists in other mammals, such as horses, cattle, dogs and cats.
This suggests that the development of vocal communication probably developed faster at an earlier evolutionary stage than previously thought.
“(This suggests that) the vocal learning that we have in humans probably originated early in evolution and that all mammals have a form of basic flexibility in the vocalizations,” Briefer said.
Developing accents, Briefer said, serves an important purpose for the goats, an animal she describes as smart and social.
“These accents allow them to recognize who’s from their group and who’s not from their group, and it increases group cohesion,” Briefer said.
Goats hide in vegetation during the first week of their lives to avoid predators. Once this period has passed, goats join groups of other goats of a similar age and develop strong social bonds with this group.
The goats Briefer and McElligott studied were genetically similar and lived in the same environment, eliminating other explanations for the differences in their calls.
Briefer plans to continue her research to determine whether goats retain their ability to adapt to the accent of a group or if this vocal flexibility is lost as they age.