An international team of researchers from the University of Turku, Finland, and INRAE in Noselli, France, has explored the ability of reindeer sledding to follow directional cues from humans. Their results highlight that reindeer, which are so well accustomed to humans, can make use of nodding signals very well with minimal training.
Working animals, such as horses, herding dogs, and logging elephants, spend a significant amount of time interacting closely with humans to accomplish specific tasks. Effective communication plays an important role in their working relationship. Animals’ understanding of human signals, particularly hand pointing gestures, is an important aspect of this communication.
Using pointing gestures to communicate with others and to show where they should look or go is very natural for humans. For other animals that do not use this method of communication, the gesture may not always be easy to understand. For this reason, the pointing gesture is often used in experiments to see if animals can understand human signals.
“Many species, such as dogs, primates, horses, goats or elephants, have already shown great potential in following human gestures, but this has never been investigated in any species,” says Osin Lehrmann, lead author of the study. deer”. From the Department of Biology at the University of Turku, Finland.
Lehrmann continues, “Reindeer are the only species of deer that have been domesticated and used for draft work by pulling sleds.” “Therefore, reindeer skiing provides a great opportunity to explore the cognitive capabilities of deer to follow human indicators.”
In their experiments, the research team examined the ability of eight sledding reindeer to respond to a very common human cue: The experimenter, standing between two closed buckets of lichen, pointed at one of the buckets while looking at it and moving closer. to her. The reindeer had to follow the nodding signal and approach the hinted bucket to get the lichen.
The test was repeated 10 times for each of the eight reindeer and the researchers analyzed how many times out of the 10 trials the reindeer followed the human cue. By replicating natural communication methods, the team aims to determine whether reindeer are receptive to basic human communication cues.
Four out of eight reindeer failed to pass the test. This reindeer was younger and had less experience with humans. They showed signs of stress and had difficulty focusing on the food reward during the initial trials.
Of the four reindeer who were highly motivated to participate in the experiment, two followed human cues 9 out of 10 times, indicating their ability to rely on human-provided cues.
“These displays are particularly interesting as reindeer sleds are semi-captive and are only trained and used for work during the winter,” says Dr. Martin Seltmann, co-author of the study. “While all previous studies on other species were conducted on fully tamed, captive animals, sledding reindeer, which have limited contact with humans, performed well at following human cues with minimal training.”
The study highlights that animals can learn to understand and interact with humans even if they do not experience continuous close contact with humans. In addition, reindeer have the potential to serve as a new model for studying deer cognition in more detail.
The study has been published in Journal of Comparative Psychology.
Osin Lehrmann et al. First report on the response of reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus) to human-provided cues. , Journal of Comparative Psychology (2023). doi: 10.1037/com0000353
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