More than meats the eye

Laura Spinney reports in The Guardian:

Cow In one of his famous cartoons, American Gary Larson has cows standing about on their hind feet, smoking fags by the side of a road. One of them, the lookout, shouts “Car!” and by the time the motorist reaches them he gazes out on an idyllic scene of cows munching grass on all fours. The cows are doing cow things, and all is well with the world.

It’s a good joke, of course. Or maybe a dark reference to the not-so-distant past when Europeans – and some Americans – dressed animals up, put them on trial for heinous crimes and executed them, thereby judging them on a par with humans when it came to freely deciding their actions and being morally responsible for the outcomes. But new research suggests that animals have far more complex cognitive and social skills than we gave them credit for.

First for some findings. Last October, Ana da Costa and colleagues at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge reported that when sheep were isolated from their flock, they experienced stress as measured by increases in heart rate, stress hormones and bleating. But showing them pictures of familiar sheep faces reduced their stress on all three counts. The same effect was not produced when they were shown pictures of goat faces or inverted triangles. Other research has shown that if offered a choice of two feeding stalls, pigs will avoid the one they remember being shut into, previously, for several hours after eating, and go for the one they were released from quickly. Lame broiler hens, or hens bred for meat, will choose food laced with painkillers over food that is not. And rainbow trout will learn to react to cues that predict noxious stimuli, moving away from them to a different part of the tank.

Read more here.