Nature

04
Mar

Cows Learn Better When They Have Friends

Cows that live together, learn together.

Maybe because we usually think of them as the source of milk and cheese, cows haven’t been the subject of many scientific studies on learning or cognitive development. But social species, including cows, need interaction to grow and flourish—so animal welfare researcher Charlotte Gaillard of the University of British Columbia wanted to see if cows benefit cognitively from social housing. She devised a series of tests to see whether or not four- to six-week-old calves that lived together were able to learn better than those that were housed individually. (The latter is more common on farms because cows are more easily managed separately.)

two-cows-1024x576
Dairy farmers typically house calves separately, but a new study shows that there are cognitive benefits to allowing them more social interaction.

The first test measured a cognitive skill called “reversal learning,” in which calves were trained to associate a white or black square with a food reward. Then after the association is learned, the colors are switched and the cows must relearn where they expect to get the food reward. In the second test, an unfamiliar object (a plastic red bin) was placed in cows’ pens and researchers measured how willing they were to interact with it.

Here’s Jason Goldman, writing for The Thoughtful Animal:

The results, like the tests, were also very straightforward. None of the calves had difficulty learning to associate a color with a reward in the first place. But that’s where the similarities ended. Calves who were housed in isolation had a much more difficult time with the reversal learning task than did their counterparts who were housed in groups. While the individually-housed calves did eventually succeed at the task, it took them on average six additional trials to reach the success criterion established by the researchers. Gaillard thinks that the social calves may have learned to be more behaviorally flexible. “Inflexibility in the individually-reared animals can be explained as the result of living in a more predictable environment; social contact introduces variability into the environment, and animals that are reared without this complexity may be less able to cope with it,” she says. By contextualizing her findings within other research, she hypothesizes that the isolated calves may actually have underdeveloped brain tissue in the prefrontal cortex compared with the social calves, or reduced interconnectedness between the prefrontal cortex and other areas of the brain.

Perhaps more telling was that the calves housed in pairs eventually grew tired of the red bin in the second experiment, while the calves housed separately were more inclined to pay attention to it longer—maybe because they had more anxieties or because they were hungry for novelty and excitement. In this case, the more socialized cows habituated to the new object more easily—and assimilation is an important aspect of learning.

Both tests demonstrate that animals can have rich social lives, and their wellbeing depends on how able they are to interact with others and engage with their environment.

Watch a preview of "Inside Animal Minds: Who’s the Smartest?" airing April 23 at 9/8c on PBS, to learn more about the social lives of smart animals.