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Are there optimistic and pessimistic cows? Scientists devised and interesting way to find out

Posted February 17, 2018

There are people who are more optimistic and there are people who are more pessimistic. These human character traits are natural to us, we accept them without giving them much thought. However, have you ever wondered if cows can be more or less optimistic? Scientists from the University of British Columbia say that they totally are.

Some cows are more optimistic about the future and are less careful. Image credit: Christopher Michel via Wikimedia(CC BY 2.0)

Cows are herd animals and that is how we see them. But they still may have different personalities. Scientists conducted an interesting experiment, involving 22 calves trained to understand which of their choices would lead to a reward. The training was rather simple. Animals were let into a small pen with several holes on one end of the wall. The hole at one end contained a bottle with milk and the hole at the opposite end had an empty bottle that delivered only a gust of wind to the calves face. Animals learned quickly where to seek for reward.

How does this help gauging optimism in calves? Well, there were three more holes in between the aforementioned two. Scientists determined that pessimistic calves would be scared to approach a bottle coming out of these intermediate holes even if it was closer to the reward side. Meanwhile more optimistic animals would just go to the bottle wherever it is. And so some calves performed differently in these experiments. However, just to confirm that these findings were not a simple representation of a mood, tests were repeated after three weeks and proved to be consistent. Scientists also assessed fearfulness by monitoring response of calves to unfamiliar situations (they presented animals with strangers or foreign objects). As expected, fearfulness turned out to be related to pessimism.

Optimism and pessimism are our own personality traits, but scientists didn’t really look for them in animals. But what implications does this study have? Marina von Keyserlingk, leader of the research team, said: “The next step in our research will be to understand what type of rearing conditions help ensure that an individual animal has a good life. For example, more pessimistic calves may require different types of housing and management than we currently provide”. Essentially, when possible, we should see the herd as consisting of individual animals.

This is actually quite interesting, because people working on smaller farms could have revealed these results long time ago. Animals have different personalities that simply cannot be addressed in big herds. It would be interesting to see how scientists research other personality traits of calves.


Source: University of British Columbia

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