Down on the farm: six unusual studies on our favourite livestock

Ewe won’t baaa-lieve number 3…

10th November 2017
Down on the farm: six unusual studies on our favourite livestock © Getty

A new study has discovered that sheep – providers of warm wool and baaaa-d puns (sorry about that) – are able to recognise human faces. Researchers from Cambridge University trained the fluffy farm animals to identify celebrity faces, and when the sheep were shown photographs they were able to pick out these familiar faces more frequently than random ones. It means that sheep are up there with primates when it comes to facial recognition, but it also adds to the collection of bizarre animal studies performed on our nation’s livestock. Here are some more examples of unusual research:

Getting pigs drunk

We’ll just say this now, it’s not cool to get animals drunk, ever, but in a 2012 study, researchers from Rhode Island Hospital measured the effects of wine and vodka on pigs’ cardiovascular health. They found that by mixing red wine or vodka into the test pigs’ high-fat diet, the drunken swine had increased blood flow to the heart and higher levels of HDL (good cholesterol) in their blood. Both boozes worked in different ways, with red wine dilating the blood vessels, while vodka caused more collateral vessels to develop. Of the two, red (s)wine had the greater impact, and there is no indication yet as to whether it is true for humans, but if anything, it gives us an idea what these greedy piggies are swilling.

Breeding heat-resistant cows of the future

Heat-resistant cows sound like they would be “udderly” useless in pursuit of the perfect steak, but with more than half of the world’s cattle and 40 per cent of US beef cows living in hot or humid conditions, the University of Florida has set about using genomic tools to produce an animal with “superior ability to adapt to hot living conditions and produce top-quality beef”. The study will search the DNA of the Brangus cow, a cross between an Angus and a Brahman, in search for the regions of DNA that regulate body temperature. Let’s just hope this won’t have too much of an effect if you like your steak well done.

Questioning why we have gay sheep

The animal kingdom has plenty of promiscuous animals, happy to engage in sexual activity with both sexes, but humans and sheep are the only two species that can show a lifelong preference for their own sex. In fact, as much as eight per cent of domesticated rams are male-oriented, and a 2004 study from the Oregon Health & Science University sought to find out why. They discovered a slight difference in the hypothalamus (a region of the brain that controls reproduction) of the male- and female-oriented rams, suggesting that there is a biological difference between the two preferences. This finding (with a healthy dose of misinformation) caused outrage among some circles, and led many to question the ethics of determining an animal’s sexual leanings.

Sleeping with chickens

If the thought of sharing a bed with a chicken has you clucking, knowing that it could keep you free from malaria might make it a price worth paying. A 2016 study by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Addis Ababa University investigating the malaria-carrying mosquito Anopheles arabiensis found it was repelled by the odour emitted from chickens. Mosquitoes differentiate their targets through their sense of smell, and when the researchers isolated a smell from the feathers of chickens that was not found in any other of the livestock and humans in the local area, they created a repellent that successfully kept more mosquitoes away than in control trials. But for the sake of creating a new type of repellent, they also found suspending a live chicken next to your bed worked just as well. Whatever feathers one’s nest…

Talking to goats

Nope, this has nothing to do with clandestine US military operations (as far as we know…), but the vocal plasticity and evolution of language. A study from Queen Mary, University of London found that newborn pygmy goats had their own distinct voice, but as they grew older and became more social animals, their calls became more similar to the other goats around them. We “kid” you not, they studied goats to see if they develop accents. Frivolous as this might sound, mammals’ ability to adapt and change their voice (plasticity) suggests an early form of vocal communication, which might have been a pathway for humans developing language and speech.

Avoiding untoward advances from male ducks

It might come as a surprise that while most males in the avian kingdom do not have a penis, the humble duck has a relatively large (up to 20cm), corkscrew-shaped phallus tucked away in their body – and they’re not afraid to use it. Ducks have a habit of performing forced copulation, a practice where a more, aherm, uniquely proportioned penis comes in at a distinct advantage, but a study from Yale University discovered female ducks have evolved an ingenious defence method against unwelcome advances – a clockwise spiral-shaped vagina. By being conversely shaped to the male duck’s penis, the female can impede or block out her admirer’s sperm altogether, meaning they now get to choose who they are willing to reproduce with. That’s a “quacking” win for lady ducks in what we’re billing an evolutionary battle of the sexes. 

 


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