As It Happens

Being an outsider has its advantages, especially if you're a camel or a goat

It’s not always easy being a social outcast, but it can motivate you to take risks and think outside the box. At least, that appears to be the case when it comes to hooved animals.

Study of hooved animals finds outcasts are the most innovative problem solvers

Close-up on the face of white and beige goat with horns that almost appears to be smiling.
A goat in a meadow in Veleniki, Croatia. A new study suggests that goats, as well as camels, are more innovative and less fearful of new things than many other hooved species — especially the outsiders. (Denis Lovrovic/AFP/Getty Images)

It's not always easy being a social outcast, but it can motivate you to take risks and think outside the box.

At least, that appears to be the case when it comes to hooved animals, also known as ungulates.

A new study tested the innovation and problem solving abilities of ungulates by introducing something new and unexpected to their environment — lidded cups full of tasty snacks — to see how they would react.

Of the 13 species studied, goats and camels were the most likely to retrieve the food. But it was the outsiders within those groups that had the most success.

"These animals are not very well tolerated in the group and are more in the outskirts," lead author Álvaro Caicoya, a psychology graduate student at the University of Barcelona, told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

"So these animals are probably going to innovate and look for new sources of food."

The findings were published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Innovation versus fear

The goal of the experiment was to measure innovation, which the study defines as the "ability to solve new problems or find novel solutions to familiar problems."

It's a characteristic that can provide "crucial" benefits for an animal's ability to adapt and survive, the study notes. But it can be at odds with another common characteristic tied to survival — neophobia, a fear of new things. 

After all, in the wild, something new could be deadly.

Camels stand next to a fence munching on food from plastic cups on a board.
The study introduced lidded cups full of tasty snacks to the animals' environment. All of the dromedary camels — also known as Camelus dromedarius or Arabian camels — went for the food inside the cups, and 89 per cent were successful. (Proceedings of the Royal Society B)

"For some species, neophobia may evolve as an effective strategy for survival, depending on the environmental pressures that species faces. In other species neophilia (liking new things) became an effective strategy," University of New Hampshire psychologist Jan Tornick, who was not involved in the study, said in an email.

Tornick, who studies animal cognition and behaviour, says that even within a species, there can be individuals that are more neophobic or more neophilic.

"Both strategies have trade-offs, but both can allow individuals to survive to pass on genes for that trait," she said.

How the experiment worked

For this study, the researchers observed 111 individual animals across 13 species — impalas, mhorr gazelles, dorcas gazelles, scimitar oryx, dromedary camels, red deer, Barbary sheep, giraffes, guanacos, lamas, Przewalski horses, domestic sheep and domestic goats.

Caicoya says it was important to have a mix of test subjects because most studies of this nature tend to focus on just one species — and rarely ever ungulates. 

Each species had plastic cups added to their enclosures, filled with food tailored to their specific tastes, and covered with lids.

The puzzle was simple. The critters could easily prop open the lids using their nuzzles or tongues, or simply knock over the cups and seize the spoils.

WATCH | How different hooved animals liberate snacks from a lidded cup: 

In the end, 62 per cent of the animals gave it a try, while 38 per cent didn't even approach the cups.

There was also a lot of variability between the species. While only 33 per cent of the sheep approached the cups, 100 per cent of the camels did.

Camels were also the most likely to get the grub, opening the lids successfully 88 per cent of the time, followed by goats, which had a 69 per cent rate of success.

So why were camels and goats the kings of the cups?

"They are domestic animals, so maybe they are more used to human things. So that could be an explanation," Caicoya said. "But also [sheep] are domestic animals and they are not very good at solving the tasks, so we cannot rely on that to be an explanation."

Both species are also known to be highly social.

Tornick says the results could be explained, in part, by the social intelligence hypothesis, which "predicts that species of animals that evolved in complex social groups have additional evolutionary pressures that led to greater cognitive abilities, compared with solitary species."

The benefits of being on the margins

Ahead of the experiment, the researchers closely observed the animals and mapped out their social hierarchies. In the end, the camels and goats who were lowest on the pecking order were also the best at getting the snacks out of the cups.

That could be because they can't rely on their fellow critters, the study suggests, so they've learned to rely on themselves.

In the wild, loners are also at greater risk of predation, Caicoya says, because they tend to be separated from the herd. That's another reason they may do whatever it takes to survive.

Caicoya says this kind of research helps us better understand understudied animals — and perhaps even ourselves.

"I think that this kind of study teaches us that these animals with hooves … are pretty intelligent animals, and we should really pay attention to them, and really study them more," he said.

"Because they can teach us a lot about how we think, how we behave and how we resolve problems."

Interview with Álvaro Caicoya produced by Katie Geleff.

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