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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Goat Accents

Air Date: Week of February 24, 2012

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A female goat and her two kids. (Photo: Wikipedia Creative Commons)

Birds do it, dolphins do it, and so do elephants and humans. We change our vocalization based on social and environmental factors. Now you can add goats to the list. Dr. Elodie Briefer, a biologist at the University of London, tells host Bruce Gellerman about the surprising new discovery that goats have accents.

Transcript

GELERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Doe’s a deer that works well in a song - but does don’t make much sound. On the other hand goats do…

[SOUND OF GOAT: BAHHHH…]

GELLERMAN: Goat kids get vocal right after birth - and it turns out, they quickly pick up accents. Give a listen…here’s one kid.

[SOUND OF GOAT: BAHHHH…]

GELLERMAN: And here’s another---

[SOUND OF GOAT: BAHHHH…]

GELLERMAN: Can you hear the different accents? Well, Dr. Elodie Briefer can. She's a biologist at the University of London, and she discovered that pygmy goats – like humans, bats and whales - are among the elite group of mammals that can adapt vocal sounds in response to the environment.

BRIEFER: Well, actually I wasn’t expecting that at all, because people don’t think that species such as goats have flexible vocalizations and that they can adjust their vocalizations to their social environments. So, in my study, I recorded them when they were one week old and then five weeks old. And the goats became a lot more similar during those four weeks.

GELLERMAN: So, goats have different accents.

BRIEFER: Yeah. I found that when goat kids were raised in the same group, they actually started to copy each other and develop similar vocalizations. So their vocalizations changed with time, just like us humans.

GELLERMAN: So, I’m from Brooklyn, New York, and you’re from…?

BRIEFER: Yeah, I’m originally from Switzerland, yeah.

GELLERMAN: So, we can both speak English, understand each other, but different accents.


(Photo: Wikipedia Creative Commons)

BRIEFER: Exactly, yeah.

GELLERMAN: Now, you’ve listened to these kids bleating hundreds of times, right?

BRIEFER: Yeah.

GELLERMAN: Can you tell the difference just by listening?

BRIEFER: Yeah. Actually, if you hear goat calls from the same group and then goat calls from a different group, you might be able to hear the difference, even you.

GELLERMAN: Well, we’ve got some goat calls - let’s hear the group one here:

[SOUND OF GOAT FROM GROUP ONE BLEETING: BAHHHH…]

GELLERMAN: Let’s hear that one again:

[SOUND OF GOAT FROM GROUP ONE BLEETING: BAHHHH…]

GELLERMAN: So, lets play a goat from a different group:

[SOUND OF GOAT FROM GROUP TWO BLEETING: BAHHHH…]

GELLERMAN: Even I can tell the difference there!

BRIEFER: Yeah, so the pitch of the call is a lot higher in the second group.

GELLERMAN: Group one:

[SOUND OF GOAT FROM GROUP ONE BLEETING: BAHHHH…]

GELLERMAN: Group two:

[SOUND OF GOAT FROM GROUP TWO BLEETING: BAHHHH…]

GELLERMAN: Now, why would they be different?

BRIEFER: I think that this group effect on the vocalizations is like an indicator of the group. So, goats are really social animals and it will allow them to differentiate who’s from their group and who’s from another group and will increase group cohesion.

GELLERMAN: So, the function is to increase group cohesion, and why would that be?

BRIEFER: They need to keep together in a group. And goats have really complex social structure. Actually, they’re in a really big group during the night and they spilt up into small groups during the day and in the morning, for example, they will need to know, for example - who are the members of their group.

GELLERMAN: So, if we had a herd of zebras, or you know, a pack of wolves, they’re social animals - would you expect that they would have different accents too?

BRIEFER: Yeah. My results were surprising because the main, original idea, was that in animals such as goats - there’s no effect of the environment on vocalizations. Because I found that on goats - I’m pretty sure that it exists on lots of other mammals.

GELLERMAN: So, I have to ask you, Dr. Briefer. When you tell somebody that you study goat calls, what’s their first impression?

BRIEFER: They find that quite funny, of course. But most people don’t really see what could be so important - to study goat calls. But I think it’s pretty important because it shows us - how did we evolve. Especially these accents that I found on goat kids show us the basis of the huge vocal flexibility that we have in humans. It also shows us that some animals, like goats, also have a flexible vocalizations and they can also learn from each other and develop accents.

GELLERMAN: Could it be even more complex? Could it be, not just a signaling or an emotive expression, but actually communicating ideas?

BRIEFER: Well, we never know, yeah. I think that we’re only at the beginning of researching this area and there are lots of things that we still need to discover. For example, we know that some animals actually have different alarm calls for different predators. They are actually giving information about what kind of predation is around them - that’s quite impressive.

GELLERMAN: Well, Dr. Briefer, thank you so very much.

BRIEFER: Yeah, no problem.

GELLERMAN: Dr Elodie Briefer is a biologist at The University of London.

 

Links

Dr. Elodie Briefer’s website

 

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