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Cattle have intricate social lives that aren't readily apparent

An intriguing study conducted by researchers at the City University of Hong Kong (CityUHK) has shed light on the intricate social lives of feral cattle, offering unprecedented insights into their behaviors and welfare.

By focusing on free-ranging cattle in Hong Kong, this research delves into how sex and social status influence social grooming — specifically, the act of one animal licking another, known as allogrooming.

Closer look at the social dynamics of cattle

Feral cattle, while numbering over a billion in global production, find a unique niche in Hong Kong, with around 900 brown cattle roaming freely.

Unlike their farm-raised counterparts, these cattle exhibit distinct social behaviors, offering a rare window into their natural interactions.

Alan McElligott, associated with CityUHK’s Jockey Club College of Veterinary Medicine and Life Sciences, underscores the rarity and value of studying these free-ranging groups to understand the evolution of behavior in cattle groups.

“Most research on cattle behaviors is conducted on farms, and so the opportunity to study cattle behavior in free-ranging groups is rare, as there are only a few feral populations worldwide,” explains McElligott.

The study, a collaborative effort led by McElligott and PhD researcher George M. W. Hodgson, alongside other distinguished team members, was conducted in Sai Kung East Country Park, Hong Kong.

Understanding cattle social structure

Observations spanned February to May 2022, focusing on a mixed-sex herd and revealing that while all cattle were recipients of allogrooming, not all engaged in performing it.

A notable find was the preferential grooming among the cattle, with dominant females receiving more attention, highlighting an asymmetrical distribution of grooming based on social hierarchy and sex.

These interactions, particularly the fact that males groomed females more than they did other males, and females groomed both sexes equally, suggest a complex layer of sex-specific behavior not evident in farm settings.

Significance of cattle social ranking

The study also discovered that higher-ranking female cattle were not only more frequently groomed but also engaged in mutual grooming among themselves, suggesting their attractiveness as social partners extends beyond mere hierarchical benefits.

Hodgson points out, “This suggests that grooming isn’t directed to higher-ranking animals for exchanging rank-related benefits such as food or protection, as has been found in primates, but rather is used to strengthen social bonds and promote affiliation within the group.”

This indicates a significant departure from the grooming motivations observed in other species, emphasizing social cohesion over hierarchical advantages.

Gender dynamics and grooming patterns

The research also highlighted the cattle’s grooming preferences, with the neck and head being the most commonly attended regions. This specificity in grooming areas further underlines the social significance of these behaviors in maintaining herd dynamics.

“Social behaviors such as grooming or dominance are crucial in developing and maintaining herd relationships for farmed and feral cattle,” said Professor Flay.

“These preferential interactions are important to understand, as they can affect cattle and other ruminants’ health, such as parasite burdens and infectious disease transmission.”

The findings from this study enhance our understanding of sex-specific interactions among cattle and provide valuable insights into the dynamics of both competitive and friendly behaviors in ungulate groups.

Professor McElligott emphasizes the significance of these discoveries for comprehending the essence of positive social relationships and welfare in cattle, especially in environments where they can freely choose their associates.

“These results are essential for understanding patterns of positive social relationships and what good welfare means for cattle, especially when they are free to choose with whom to interact,” Professor McElligott concluded.

Allogrooming and its role in cattle social etiquette

Allogrooming, a behavior observed across many animal species besides cattle, transcends mere social nicety, embedding itself as a fundamental aspect of animal interaction and community structure.

At its core, allogrooming involves one animal cleaning or maintaining the appearance of another. This behavior, prevalent among mammals, birds, and even some insect species, serves multiple purposes.

It not only aids in hygiene maintenance by removing parasites and debris but also plays a crucial role in social bonding and the establishment of social hierarchies within groups.

Social bonds and hierarchies

Allogrooming acts as a social glue, facilitating interactions and strengthening bonds between group members.

Cattle and other animals engage in this social behavior to express affection, establish alliances, and even reconcile after conflicts.

Moreover, it plays a part in the social structuring of groups, often reflecting the hierarchical standings of individuals. Dominant individuals may receive more grooming, which in turn reinforces their status within the group.

Health and hygiene benefits

Beyond its social implications, allogrooming offers tangible health benefits. It helps in the control of parasites and the cleaning of hard-to-reach areas, contributing to the overall health and well-being of the group.

In environments where parasites and diseases can quickly spread, allogrooming acts as a natural defense mechanism, enhancing the survival rates of social animals.

Indicator of welfare

In the context of animal welfare, allogrooming serves as a barometer for the physical and psychological well-being of animals, especially in captive or domesticated settings.

High levels of allogrooming can indicate a well-adjusted, stress-free environment, whereas a lack thereof may signal underlying issues such as stress, anxiety, or social discord.

Allogrooming embodies a complex interplay of social, health, and psychological factors, highlighting its importance in the natural world.

By fostering social bonds, establishing hierarchies, and promoting health, allogrooming contributes significantly to the dynamics and well-being of animal communities.

As we continue to uncover the depths of animal behaviors, the study of allogrooming offers invaluable insights into the lives of the creatures with whom we share our planet, reminding us of the complexity and sophistication of animal societies.

New understanding of cattle society

In conclusion, the City University of Hong Kong‘s innovative study illuminates the complex social behaviors of feral cattle, revealing how sex and social status significantly influence grooming practices within these free-ranging groups.

By meticulously observing and analyzing the interactions among a mixed-sex herd, the researchers provide a rare glimpse into the natural behaviors of feral cattle while challenging previous assumptions about animal social structures.

This research underscores the importance of social grooming, known as allogrooming, in establishing and maintaining herd dynamics, offering vital insights into animal welfare that could reshape how we manage and conserve cattle populations.

Ultimately, the study serves as a testament to the intricate social lives of cattle, emphasizing the need for a deeper understanding and appreciation of animal behaviors in the wild.

The full study was published in the journal Animal Behaviour.


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