A team of scientists led by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Australia has discovered that sheep who undergo shared stressful events tend to huddle together afterwards, resembling the ways in which humans tend to bond after sharing traumatic events. These findings shed new light on how animals deal with stress and open pathways for improving their well-being.
The experts gathered 70 adult female sheep which did not know one another and divided them into seven subgroups of ten ewes each. While some of these groups were exposed to various types of stressful events – such as being herded by a dog, being collared and held by a human, being transported in a trailer, or being subjected to crutching (the process of removing wool from their legs and tail with electric clippers) – others were not.
Afterwards, all the sheep were fitted with GPS devices to track their movements and were herded into a shared pasture. While at the beginning, the sheep who became acquainted prior to their division into subgroups herded together, shortly after they began to leave the newly formed groups and gather together with the sheep with which they partnered during the stressful events. By contrast, the sheep that were not exposed to stressful events remained in their original groups.
“We found they did start to spend time with those sheep they had shared the stress with compared to other sheep they didn’t know and didn’t have any kind of shared experience with,” said study senior author Dana Campbell, an expert in Animal Behavior at CSIRO. “We’re not sure of the communication mode, but yes, there seems to be something. It really points to how clever they are.”
These findings suggest that people should not underestimate the complexity, capability, and social intelligence of sheep. Moreover, the results could help farmers better understand how animals develop relationships and thus improve their well-being by allowing them to bond.
“Social bonding following a shared stressful experience aligns with human social relationships and increases our understanding of how animals perceive their conspecifics in relation to stressful environmental change,” the authors concluded.
The study is published in the journal Current Biology.
By Andrei Ionescu, Earth.com Staff Writer
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