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Anim Cogn. 2011 Mar;14(2):279-90. doi: 10.1007/s10071-010-0361-6. Epub 2010 Dec 4.

Cattle discriminate between familiar and unfamiliar conspecifics by using only head visual cues.

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  • 1Laboratoire d'Ethologie Expérimentale et Comparée, Université Paris 13, 99 Avenue J-B. Clément, 93430, Villetaneuse, France.


Faces have features characteristic of the identity, age and sex of an individual. In the context of social communication and social recognition in various animal species, facial information is relevant for discriminating between familiar and unfamiliar individuals. Here, we present two experiments aimed at testing the ability of cattle (Bos taurus) to visually discriminate between heads (including face views) of familiar and unfamiliar conspecifics represented as 2D images. In the first experiment, we observed the spontaneous behaviour of heifers when images of familiar and unfamiliar conspecifics were simultaneously presented. Our results show that heifers were more attracted towards the image of a familiar conspecific (i.e., it was chosen first, explored more, and given more attention) than towards the image of an unfamiliar one. In the second experiment, the ability to discriminate between images of familiar and unfamiliar conspecifics was tested using a food-rewarded instrumental conditioning procedure. Eight out of the nine heifers succeeded in discriminating between images of familiar and unfamiliar conspecifics and in generalizing on the first trial to a new pair of images of familiar and unfamiliar conspecifics, suggesting a categorization process of familiar versus unfamiliar conspecifics in cattle. Results of the first experiment and the observation of ear postures during the learning process, which was used as an index of the emotional state, provided information on picture processing in cattle and lead us to conclude that images of conspecifics were treated as representations of real individuals.

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