Baaad Call: Young Goats Pick Up Accents

Goat kids, like these, appear to pick up accents from one another, a study indicates.
Goat kids, like these, appear to pick up accents from one another, a study indicates. (Image credit: Elodie Briefer)

Goats don't have their own language, but they do seem able to pick up accents from one another, scientists found in a study of calls made by young goats.

The researchers say their results could have implications for our understanding of the evolution of vocal learning, or as it is known in humans, speech.  

The ability to learn a range of sounds and modify them according to the environment was thought to be reserved to a handful of animals, including some birds, whales, dolphins, bats, elephants, and the most extreme example, us.

The goat calls reveal these animals are capable of a rudimentary form of vocal learning, and they hint that similar abilities may have gone undetected elsewhere, according to researchers at Queen Mary University of London.

"This suggests an early step in the evolution of vocal communication, leading to the advanced and unique vocal-learning abilities found in humans, which allow us to speak," write study researchers Elodie Briefer and Alan McElligott in a study made available today (Feb. 15) by the journal Animal Behavior.

Goats are social animals that live in groups and make "contact calls" to one another to stay in touch, Briefer explained.

The researchers compared the calls made by full and half-sibling pygmy goats living in different social groups when they were 1 week and 5 weeks old. At 1 week, the kids' calls showed limited similarities to other members of their group. By 5 weeks old, the kids in the same group made calls with overall structures that were more similar. Most important, the half-siblings living in the same groups made more similar calls over time. [Listen to the Goat Calls]  

This indicates that the kids' social environment, not just their genetics, played a role in shaping the calls they make, effectively giving them accents.

"Our results support the growing and controversial evidence that social context plays a role in shaping vocal communication systems," they write. "Such surprising plasticity could be present in most mammals, but has gone undetected."

You can follow LiveScience senior writer Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_Parry. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

Wynne Parry
Wynne was a reporter at The Stamford Advocate. She has interned at Discover magazine and has freelanced for The New York Times and Scientific American's web site. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah.