Have you ever been on the receiving of a curious look from a goat? It's a pretty unsettling experience, not least of all because of the animal's unusual rectangular pupils (an evolutionary adaptation that literally lets them spot predators out the corner of their eye). However, next time you get side-eyed by Billy the Kid, consider this: that goat might just be asking for your help.
eye contact with humans suggests "complex communication"
New research published this week in the journal Biology Letters suggests that just like dogs, domesticated goats are experts in eye contact and look beseechingly at nearby humans when they need a hand. Animal psychologists at Queen Mary University Of London reached this conclusion after challenging 34 goats with an "unsolvable problem," otherwise known as Food Sealed in a Tupperware Box.
The box was placed in a pen along with a human observer, who sat either facing the wall or looking into the pen. Goats were then led into the ring to see what they made of the challenge. Those that encountered a human facing away from them simply looked at the box, but those that saw a researcher looking in their direction turned to them for help, making eye contact for two to three seconds before returning to the box. You can see the experiment in action below, courtesy of Science Magazine.
This eye contact is significant, as it's a trait only observed in a few other domesticated animals, including dogs and horses. Any dog owner will tell you that their pet is more than capable of making their needs known through a judicious look, "speaking" to their owners through eye contact to ask for food, help, or back scratches.
This connection is more than just visual, too. A study in 2015 found that mutual gazing between dogs and humans increases our oxytocin levels; a hormone that's associated with social bonding. Wolves, meanwhile — the dog's closest relative and an animal that has never been domesticated — notably don't look to humans for help.
The researchers conclude that goats look at humans in the same way as "companion animals such as dogs and horses" do. This, they say, challenges the assumption that because an animal has been domesticated in a certain way (i.e. as livestock), that doesn't mean it can't exhibit "complex communication" with humans. So next time you get stared at by a goat, then, ask yourself: what can I do to help?