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What are cows communicating when they moo?

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Asked by: Dileep Bagnall, Lancashire

Old MacDonald had a farm with an ‘oink oink’ here and a ‘moo moo’ there, but we’d be foolish to think that these vocalisations have no significance. Cows are smart, social animals. They have a rich repertoire of communication that includes moos, grunts, bellows and even non-verbal signals such as tail position.


In 2014, researchers at the University of Nottingham and Queen Mary University of London decided to delve a little deeper by recording 10 months’ worth of moos and then using computer analysis to look for patterns. Just as our voices differ, the researchers found that each mother and calf have their own individual call. This is thought to help them identify each other in a herd.

The researchers could also tell a calf’s age by the sound of its call. Meanwhile, mother cows produce two different maternal calls: a low-pitched moo when they are close to their calves, and a louder, higher-pitched moo when they are separated from their calves, or just before nursing. Calves, in return, make a different call when they are separated from their mother and/or want to suckle.

Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Ask any farmer and they will tell you that cows ‘talk’, not just to each other, but also to those who care for them. Cows moo when they are hungry or stressed. They moo as a warning and they moo in anticipation, if, for example, the farmer is approaching with a big bale of delicious hay.

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Helen Pilcher
Helen PilcherScience writer, presenter and performer.

Helen Pilcher is a tea-drinking, biscuit-nibbling science and comedy writer, with a PhD in cell biology.


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