Episode 133 – Alan McElligott

Alan McElligott Alan McElligott is an associate professor of animal behavior at the University of Roehampton, London, UK, and researcher who focuses on understanding how evolution, ecology, and domestication have shaped the social behavior, cognition and vocal communication of livestock. The main species for their research are goats, chickens, and cattle. They produce knowledge that is relevant to animal behavior, as well as animal husbandry and welfare.


Website: https://www.alanmcelligott.co.uk/  

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 Alan is an associate professor and researcher who focuses on understanding how evolution, ecology, and domestication have shaped the social behavior, cognition, and vocal communication of livestock. The main species for their research are goats, chickens, and cattle. Their research produces knowledge that is relevant to animal behavior, as well as animal husbandry and welfare.

 Hey, Alan, welcome to the program. Thanks for having me. Yeah, I’m excited to have you and to learn about your research and everything that you’re doing. So why don’t you give us a little bit of background and kind of how you came to your position today? Like, how did you get into all of this? I guess it’s a long story, but no. I work as an Associate Professor of Animal Behavior at the University of Roehampton in Loudon. I guess, ultimately, the main thing is that I was always fascinated by animals from a very young age, and now I’m not very young, but I’m sort of managing to work on the animals. So I wasn’t always working on animal welfare. But I’ve always been interested, generally in my life, farm animals and really anything to do with animals. So after school, I actually went to a university and got a degree in Zoology, followed by a Ph.D. in Zoology, at a different university. I’m Irish originally. So I studied for my bachelor’s degree in Zoology in Cork, in Ireland and then did my Ph.D. in Dublin. But ultimately, I guess the reason was I was always fascinated by animals. Yeah, and then you decided that a career in research and you started to go down a very specific path. Well, ultimately, because I am fascinated by animals, when I went to university and sort of looked around their career options, really, the only way that you could really get work and study animals was potentially doing a Masters and a Ph.D. So very early, it dawned on me and I realized that I needed to go down that postgraduate route if I wanted to work on animals eventually, as a sort of career. So actually, many years ago, did my Ph.D. research on here, believe it or not? Well, it wasn’t an animal welfare project, but it was certainly an animal behavior project.

 Yeah, and I noticed that you’ve written lots of articles. I was just kind of looking at your Google Scholar and all the citations and that. Tell us a little bit more about the types of articles and studies that you’ve done over the years. I started working on Fallow Deer for my Ph.D. research in the early 1990s. And a lot of my early work was on here in the early publications. One of the things that has always fascinated me, actually, is working on vocal communication in animals. And that is still going on today, even though now I do it in a very different context in animal welfare. So the Ph.D. research certainly focused around studying the behavior of Fallow Deer during the rush. And one of the really noticeable things about Fallow Deer is that the males call a lot during the rush. In the Northern Hemisphere, Fallow Deer is one of the most common deer species in the world. They’re found in North America. I think there are some ads, a reserve nearest San Francisco, called Point Reyes. There’s certainly some fawns all over the U. S. They’re found all over Europe, South Africa, Australia. And one of the distinctive features of Fallow Deer during the rush is that the males call that extremely high rates. So if you’re watching Fallow Deer in a park, that’s one of the most distinctive features. And I got interested in why they’re doing it and it’s actually linked to their mating success, ultimately. It serves two functions, it repels other males, but it’s also an attraction to females. Interesting.

 So you started saying that, Hey, this vocal communication of animals is an area that I really want to go deep in. And particularly, Fallow Deer were a really good model species for working all that because, as I said, the males in particular, during the breeding season of the rut, which in the UK happens sort of September into October, similar to the deer ruts throughout the Northern hemisphere. So that was something I really looked at. So we measure things like the amount of time, in terms of the number of days, they were found to be vocalizing during the breeding season. We examined vocalization rates in different contexts, and, for example, we found that the proportion of time that they invest in calling is also linked to their mating success, it’s not necessarily a direct link. It’s probably that just good, highly competitive or big dominant males also happen to call a lot, so they’re advertising that back to other females and males. I suppose that makes logical sense.

 Now you’ve done research now, for more than 20 years, it looks like. How has your research evolved over the years? After doing my Ph.D. research from the college here on this base in Dublin, I actually moved to the University of Zurich, in Switzerland on a six-year fellowship. And there, I continued that sort of line of research. In fact, one of my students from Switzerland, went back to Dublin to continue that research and collaborate with a research group there. Switzerland was also a great place to work for six years because I also developed some smaller research projects on some of the wild, sort of ungulates species that have been in Switzerland. Ungulates are like animals with who, so deer and goats and antelope and species like that. So while I was in Switzerland, I had students working, doing some research on Red Deer and also Ibex, which is a type of mountain goat. And also on a  type of mountain antelope called Chamois. There were and are suggestions, for example, domestic sheep really stunted mountains that some are, one competes for food for those mountain antelope, called Chamois, but also potentially transmit disease to them. So I’d arrange a project. But they were all sort of based in the field and the wild.

 And after six years in Switzerland, I decided to move to the UK, and one thing that I always wanted to do was a little bit more experimental research. And working on wild animals, it’s, or nearly wild animals, it’s almost impossible to do experimental research, particularly behavioral experiments. So when I moved from Switzerland to the UK, I made a conscious decision to switch, in terms of research focus and choose an animal, domestic animal in particular, where we could still carry out behavior work but do more behavioral experiments. And that’s actually when I switched to doing a lot of research on goats at that point. So they were similar in terms of species, to the ones I’d worked with before. And so I feel like I potentially knew, a lot in advance about these types of animals and how they behave. But I was interested in particular and being able to carry out the experiments that we’ve been publishing sort of for the last 10 years because I wanted to work on the domestic livestock species, then that also left itself to doing welfare-related research. Because I mean on a worldwide scale, there are over 1,000,000,000 goats on the planet, for example. And at that time when I decided to switch to working on goats, or at least for goats to become the main focus of my research, there was only one other lab in the world. Well, I’m sure there were others, but there was one lab that I knew of doing research on goats. That was a lab, research group in Germany, but there was very little else. And also in the UK, for example, they were already really well-established groups doing research on sheep and pigs, and I didn’t want to just sort of start working on sheep and pigs and simply be trying to play catch up with other people that are simply trying to repeat what they had done already.

 So you decided that since there weren’t a lot of researchers that were studying goats, that you knew of anyway, that that was a good area for you to focus on. And then how do you go about determining what you’re going to study? Because of my interest in vocal communication and I already had developed a lot of knowledge in that area, the first thing we did, and I worked with, managed to write a grant with a post-op doctor, , actually, she Swiss. But she had completed her Ph.D. in Paris. She contacted me and wanted to work on the project with me and we wrote a grant together and we actually got that grant. And because I have done a lot of research on vocal communication on deer and almost nothing was known about vocal communication in goats, that was the first topic I moved into in terms of studying goats. At a later stage, we moved into more sort of research that we call cognitive or problem-solving in goats. But in the early days, to allow this sort of smooth transition and maintain the research, the first thing I wanted to do was vocal communication. But I’m still doing aspects of vocal communication in goats, until now.

 In fact, we had a paper published in the middle of last summer, which is the latest one, which was goats, for example, produce different sounding vocalizations, depending on whether they’re in a sort of, let’s call it happy or sad state That’s a bit anthropomorphic, but let’s call that positive or negative state. So the sound of their call is slightly different. But we were interested. We could tell that they’re different, using computer programs. But we were interested to try to determine if other goats could tell the difference. I mean, they should be able to tell the difference. They’ve evolved with other goats, and they’re hearing is much better than ours, in the analysis of a computer program. But nevertheless, you still have to carry out research to actually determine if they can tell the difference between positive and negative calls of other goats. And indeed, they do. They’re quite good at distinguishing it, distinguishing most types of calls. So that’s really important because these are herd living animals. So it means that if all individuals experience that sort of positive or negative state and calling as a result of it, it contends that information to other individuals in the herd. Interesting. And then are you able to distinguish from a human ear, are you able to tell the difference between these calls? Not me personally, but people I’ve worked with particularly and a student of mine, because they were dealing with the recordings of the calls every day. They in particular are good at it. But me, not so much because I’m not dealing with the analysis of the calls so much. But I’m sure if you spoke to goat farmers, for example, or we work at a goat sanctuary, which is not too far from London, it’s about an hour drive, It’s called Buttercup Sanctuary for Goats, and I’m sure if you asked the experienced volunteers and staff there, they could probably tell the difference. So it’s not impossible, but it just requires a little bit of experience. That makes sense. kind of what people that would often say, they can tell the difference in a cat’s call or a dog barking. Exactly. Or, you know, I can tell the difference in the bark of my dog, for example, because I’m used to interacting with him. So I know immediately what he’sTrying to signal. Yeah, yeah. 

So now you’ve established this baseline that the goats are able to tell the difference. What does this research get used for? That’s a good question. I mean, goats can really serve as a model for other livestock species as well. And, for example, this sort of research, hasn’t been done for other livestock. So usually the welfare conditions of other livestock, like cattle or pigs, for example, often animals study on their own or experiments were carried out, just looking at one individual. But often it’s not taken into account that the behavior or welfare state of all individuals can potentially be affecting the others in the herd.

 And that sort of research that we published, middle of last year, actually in relation to goats, it simply hasn’t been done yet for cattle or sheep. Of course, cattle and sheep are not highly vocal. Cattle, in particular, are generally quiet animals, but I think particularly for species like pigs, for example, and I don’t know what the numbers of pigs are on the planet, but it must be into the billions. Someone will probably correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m not a pig expert. But pigs, for example, are highly vocal. Pigs are also on farms or highly intensive indoor production facilities. And there is, um, some, not by me, but there are some people looking at pig welfare or pig vocalizations, in particular, and they also differ, depending on the welfare state of the animals. 

So it’s usable because the data or the information could be used because you should really be designing the best possible husbandry conditions for these animals. They’re capable of experiencing emotions, for example, and being in a positive or negative state. But they are also capable of producing vocalizations that indicate those states. So if you’d like to monitor and improve the welfare of animals and the improved husbandry conditions, we should really be providing them with situations or the conditions in which they’re not producing lots of different negative calls, for example. So you could develop a method for monitoring the vocalizations that they produce, so that you can monitor whether they’re producing a lot of positive or negative calls.. Yeah, that’s really fascinating. And I love the angle there. There’s so little that we know about these animals. And so to your point of studying the effects that vocalizations have, not just on that one goat, but on the other goats that are hearing it that’s got to be really fascinating. So we don’t know what the effects are yet because we haven’t done that. But at least we know, up to this point, that they can tell the difference when some of their herd are producing negative or positive calls. So they can certainly tell the difference between them.

 I guess the next step would be to indicate what effects, whether they’re serious, are not so serious, they have on other individuals. As a result of some of the goat research that was published a couple of years ago. I don’t count myself as a chicken expert, for example, but I have been involved in a couple of chicken projects, as a result. That they’re sort of aimed at a similar thing because broiler chickens, that are farmed in really huge facilities, for their meat, they’re highly vocal. They also happen to produce a wide variety of calls. A much bigger variety of calls, compared to goats or even pigs. But there is some indication that they produce different types of calls depending on whether they’re in a sort of happy or sad state or distressed state, for example. And again, monitoring the welfare conditions of chickens is a huge problem that needs to be resolved. Or at least be addressed. And almost every couple of weeks, we see the latest scandal stories in the press, about chickens being badly treated in some productive facilities. So this sort of research ultimately can lead into ways of monitoring the welfare of the animals, be it the goats, pigs or chickens, and hopefully improving the husbandry conditions that are bombing conditions. That’s really cool.

 And the other thing I noticed is that you’ve studied how the goats react to human emotions and human facial expressions. Can you tell us a little bit about that? Yeah, so that some of the research that is not linked vocalization that all. The background with that research that’s going on, for example, in dogs in particular, also horses, for comparative research to trying to determine what it’s domestication dumb to the behavior of certain species, like dogs or horses compared to ancestral species. The ancestor of dogs, for example, are clearly wolves. So there’s been a lot of research looking at how dogs or horses respond to humans and one of the key things about dogs and horses, they have a similar domestication history and track of, they were both domesticated to work quite closely with humans. Obviously, they were domesticated to be eaten as well, probably more so, horses then dogs. But even though they’re only very distantly related, obviously horses are mammals and dogs are mammals as well. Both of them were domesticated to work closely with humans. It is not particularly surprising that both those species have been fun to be really good at reading, human ques. So telling the difference between human faces or even for example, telling the difference between an angry and a happy human face. So we were interested to test similar questions in goats because goats are domesticated as well. Dogs, probably, I think dogs were considered to be the first species to be domesticated, many thousands of years ago, but goats were the first domesticated livestock species. There’s a paper published almost 20 years ago, actually showing that the earliest remains of domesticated goats were found in what we noticed, the fertile crescent for many species were domesticated is in present-day Western Iran, actually. But we were interested in testing some of the questions with goats because they weren’t domesticated as manual animals. Or they weren’t domesticated to work closely with humans, So we were curious to see if they could read some of the same ques.

So we carried out some experiments to tell, to determine if goats could tell the difference between happy and angry human faces, and we found out that they did. Which then has been suggested that being able to do this is probably not just down to being domesticated, as the species is working closely with humans, but nevertheless potentially a general effective domestication. And it sort of makes sense that goats, or indeed, any other lifestyle might be able to do that. But one of the limitations of the study’s of that and others is the only species that are generally tested are domesticated ones. It may be that wild animals, given the right conditions, there were some wild animal species, can do this as well. For example, if they’ve been hand-reared, but we don’t know the answer to that because no other species have been tested yet. But it remains to be seen. Yeah, for sure.

 Now you’ve studied a lot of different aspects of goats. What do you see is next? What are you gonna be focusing on? Actually, one of the projects that’s going on at the movement. So we’ve already studied, and I mentioned earlier, that we know that goats can tell the difference between other goats in terms of the individual goats, but also whether those goats are producing calls that are negative or positive. So we’re moving that research on by spending and I also mentioned, as you mentioned that already also, are about the good perception of human faces. So the logical step in that chain is actually to find out what goats think about different human voices. Whether goats can tell the difference between the emotional content of human voices, for example, so testing happy human voices, versus angry, can they tell the difference between them? And that’s a project that is ongoing by an associate of mine, at the moment, Marion Mason. So she’s busy in the middle of doing that research. And in fact, at the moment has applied for a second field season, to be carried up this summer. And the reason we’re interested in doing that is, well, one that hasn’t been done before. But also it has important implications for how we think about life stock again. Because if livestock have these abilities to even be able to proceed, whether a human voice coming at them is angry or sad or happy or whatever. That tells us a lot about how we should treat these animals, when we’re around them and be a bit more careful, in terms of our interactions with them. 

So what is your hope for this research? What would be the goal and what would be your dream? So I guess ultimately, the goal has to be improving the welfare conditions of these animals. I mean, for example, nobody is surprised if you tell them that their dogs know, so the difference between when the owner’s voice is happy or angry, but livestock aren’t supposed to have these abilities. I mean, if you talk to goat farmers and I certainly have, I spoke to goat farmers at various meetings. Goat farmers will tell you how separate their animals are. But there is a public perception often that livestock species are not that clever or even there often a public perception that goats are a bit stupid and they’re really not. By doing this, researching and getting the results out there, we want to hopefully change attitudes a little bit, to show that these animals are not stupid. They do have emotions, they express emotions. For example, we can tell when they’re expressing different emotions. And by that, promoting the idea that if you are keeping or farming these animals, you should give them the best possible care. So ultimately, the purpose of the research is to improve their lives. But also, I guess, to enrich the lives of the people who actually do care of these animals because many people obviously love their animals, whether they’re cats or dogs or goats or horses. And by doing some science and actually carrying on a really good behavioral experiment, showing them about the sort of the abilities of the animals that they might have in their care.

 Yeah, I really like that. I think it’s a long goal, but it helps, as you say, for people to understand. I mean, these are cention beings, and most of us, you know, are used to the domesticated animals. But seeing that, you know, goats can actually distinguish, and they can see human emotions and things like that on the faces, or read the facial expressions, really helps to bring them into a different life. Yes, exactly. Because in the past, similar research. Well, not exactly in terms of looking at human faces, but, you know, a lot of behavioral research has been carried out into some of the primate species. Monkeys, for example, of chimpanzees. Traditionally, there was a lot of research going on, showing, for example, how intelligent chimpanzees are. And that’s not particularly surprising. In the past, at least, people have often disregarded the potential for these capabilities, even to exist in livestock. Maybe it’s one way of, sort of switching off in order to, sort of, consciously be able to eat them or something like that. What we are trying to do and it is a person’s personal choice if they want to eat meat or not, so that’s not my brief. But at least explore the abilities of these animals and show what they’re capable of doing at least if they’re on farms or, are kept production facilities, then potentially give them the best welfare conditions that they deserve, especially since we have good evidence that they do experience emotions and can be in a sort of negative or positive state.

Now, Alan, you’ve been doing research for more than 20 years. I’m curious. Have you learned anything about yourself through all of this process? One of the most important things is to be persistent. I mean, you have to start with a fascination for animals. One of the major challenges is to keep the research going. It is not easy. It is tough. And any researcher will tell you that it is tough to keep it going. And the thing that is tough to keep going is getting the money to carry out the research because even with simple experiments, they still cost money. You still have to pay stuff to do it and they’re still expenses involved, whether it’s sort of, you know, buying equipment or paying for studies or something like that. So, yeah, you have to have the fascination, but you always have to be really consistent and put up with lots of veils in terms of grant applications that fail as well and just to somehow keep going. 

Yeah, I can totally imagine that it’s got to take a lot of internal motivation, as you said, to keep going, knowing that what you’re doing is having an impact. Yeah, but I mean, it’s also good because lots of younger students get involved in the project. So if I’ve got a Ph.D. student or, for example, also stocking more senior researchers working on the project, it gives us the opportunity to bring in younger students as well, who help us with the research and carry out their own projects within those overall projects. One, they tend to really enjoy working directly with the animals, but two, it opens their eyes because we’ve often had students working with us who initially had no interest or desire in working on goats at all. But then once they start working on them, they develop a fascination for those sorts of the animals themselves, and that’s always nice to see, as well.

 Well, Alan, this has been really interesting to hear about what you’ve been working on and kind of how it’s evolved. Is there anything else you want to mention before we wrap things up today? No, I guess not. I think I’ve covered most of the things, I guess just thanks to you and your team for inviting me all on and the chance to talk about the research. Because one of the things that I always mention whenever I give talks at universities or to other groups, is if you’re doing animal welfare research or animal behavior research, it’s really important that you get the results out to the general public at the end, and that’s a major motivation for me as well. There’s no point in doing animal research if the results that you produce, only go out to the other animal welfare researchers that are out there. Because farmers and members of the public in general, many people are linked to animals. Many people care for animals. Whether it’s goats or dogs or cats or cattle, for example. Really important to get the message out there. And by doing podcasts or other interviews, that’s how we get the information out to raise awareness. Yeah, definitely. I think that’s a really important point, and I’m glad that you’re able to join us today and talk to us about what you’re doing. So thanks for coming on today. No worries. Thanks a lot.

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