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Science

Animal Behaviour Specialists Map Out the Social Networks of Cows 66

Posted by samzenpus
from the udderly-fascinating dept.
KentuckyFC writes In a classic The Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson, a group of cows stand on two legs chatting by the side of a road when a lookout shouts "car". The cows immediately drop to a four-legged stance as the car passes by and return to their usual position and continue chatting when it has gone. Now a team of animal behavior specialists have discovered that the social lives of cattle are more complex than biologists had ever imagined (although not quite into Larson territory). These guys attached RFID tags to 70 Holstein-Fresian calves kept in three pens. They then monitored the position of each cow for a week to see which other animals they tended to have contact with. This allowed them to construct the social network for the cows with unprecedented detail. It turns out these social networks have many of the properties of human social networks. Cows have preferred partners who they tend to spend more time with and 60 per cent of their contacts occur during feeding which amounts to only 6 per cent of their time. The work has important applications. It should help biologists more accurately model how disease spreads through herds of cattle and therefore better understand how to tackle epidemics.
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Animal Behaviour Specialists Map Out the Social Networks of Cows

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  • I object. (Score:5, Funny)

    by Joe Gillian (3683399) on Monday August 04, 2014 @08:03AM (#47598879)

    I object to the idea that humans are anything like cows. In fact, we're more like sheep, which are easier to herd, hairier, and generally taste worse than beef does.

  • Facemoooo (Score:4, Funny)

    by rodrigoandrade (713371) on Monday August 04, 2014 @08:08AM (#47598897)
    I see an IPO on the horizon..
  • Old news (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 04, 2014 @08:15AM (#47598933)

    Coming from a ranching family, this is old news. In those circles, its common knowledge that cows have 'buddies' who they spend most of their time with. It actually becomes useful to the rancher to be aware of such things. First, most cattle are tagged with an ear tag with a number to aid in logging sickness, vaccinations, pregnancy etc. Now, because cattle have "Friends" My dad has pointed out times where he realized that when he saw cow #1, it was always with cow #2. If he saw either cow #2 or cow #1 alone, it was a likely indicator that something was wrong with the other cow, as it was unable to keep up with its friend. Things like this have been understood and useful to the people who deal with livestock, probably since the dawn if domestication.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by jasenj1 (575309)

      I visited a milking ranch once and the rancher told me the cows tend to line up to be milked in a regular order. There is a hierarchy in the herd and the lower status cows get the back of the line. A change in the order indicates something is up

      It's amazing to me how "scientists" often know very little about the things they are studying. Ask someone who actually WORKS in the field and they can tell the scientists all sorts of information. The scientists may still be useful to measure and quantify the common

      • Re:Old news (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Brian Nelson (3610471) on Monday August 04, 2014 @11:09AM (#47600343)
        When you put "scientists" in quotes, is it because you're claiming they're not really scientists? Science is meant to test the natural world, often to find out if our assumptions are valid. Re-validating what is already known is actually useful science, though not always as useful as new discoveries.

        If you "Ask someone who actually WORKS in the field" and you'll find all kinds of urban myths and wrong assumptions that come along with real actual useful information. Science helps distinguish between the two in a meaningful way. The sensationalism of most news articles about science being done is usually just the news media and not the scientists doing the work making these statements.

        So please, don't go around bashing scientists and science just because someone knew something before someone tested a claim.
      • by Anonymous Coward

        Dude, some JOURNALIST claims that scientists never expected this complexity. You should not be amazed at scientists' lack of knowledge because a JOURNALIST exhibits lack of knowledge, and hypes a result. I've been an academic biologist for a long time. This is not news to me or my colleagues. It's hype for the people like you that get their science from a blog, not a journal. Take a look at the abstract for the journal article. There are no such idiotic claims. Please don't slam scientists because journalis

      • Re:Old news (Score:5, Insightful)

        by McFly777 (23881) on Monday August 04, 2014 @03:58PM (#47602551) Homepage

        It's amazing to me how "scientists" often know very little about the things they are studying. Ask someone who actually WORKS in the field and they can tell the scientists all sorts of information. The scientists may still be useful to measure and quantify the common knowledge, but it is hardly a new discovery.

        From a engineering test background (vs. a pure experimental science backgorund), sometimes it is better not to know too much about the topic which you are about to test, that way you don't bias the results. Or if you might know too much, then you get someone else (your intern?) to actually perform the test.

        There is also the aspect of having documentatable proof of what was previously just an anecdotal statement. So the scientist may have talked to a farm/ranch worker. In fact that may be how the researcher got the idea to study in the first place. The "discovery" is really just that this is now a provable statement of fact.

    • The article is fine except for this mad bit of hype...

      "Now a team of animal behavior specialists have discovered that the social lives of cattle are more complex than biologists had ever imagined..."

      This last bit is clearly quite silly: they could imagine that cattle had complex social lives, because they designed an experiment to try and measure the social groupings. They seem to have done a number of sensible things, such as attempting to remove events where cow #1 was close to cow #2 because they we

  • So this is the next frontier in social networking? Farmville is so human, the next killer app is cow clicker. [wikipedia.org]
  • The short version (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Rik Sweeney (471717) on Monday August 04, 2014 @08:23AM (#47598965) Homepage

    Cows have best friends.

  • Moo, moo, moooo *snort* mooo!
    My cow friend just wanted to weigh in on this article as well. He finds the finding unsurprising and obvious.
  • by jd2112 (1535857)
    Human social networks have characteristics of bovine social networks.
    Although my first guess would have been sheep rather than cattle.
  • Look out...Here comes Zuckercud pitching his cowbook idea again!
  • Oh bull..... Why do you need a GPS collar to figure this out?

    If you've ever spent any time with a head of cows, this would be pretty obvious. Why it takes a study with GPS tags to determine individual bovines have an affinity for specific other individual ones is beyond me. When we ran the dairy operation, it was pretty obvious to me. Individuals would show up in the milking barn in a pretty consistent order and it seemed to me that they had small groups within the larger group. When we where running bee

    • by wonkey_monkey (2592601) on Monday August 04, 2014 @09:42AM (#47599537) Homepage

      If you've ever spent any time with a head of cows, this would be pretty obvious.

      They are countless examples of "pretty obvious" things that turned out not to be true.

      Your experience, for example, could be down to confirmation bias [wikipedia.org], for all any outsider might know.

      • by wonkey_monkey (2592601) on Monday August 04, 2014 @09:46AM (#47599571) Homepage

        Also quantifying said obvious thing can make it much more useful.

      • by bobbied (2522392)

        If you've ever spent any time with a head of cows, this would be pretty obvious.

        They are countless examples of "pretty obvious" things that turned out not to be true.

        Your experience, for example, could be down to confirmation bias [wikipedia.org], for all any outsider might know.

        Which is why I suggest you question a number of people who are experienced with cattle and not take my word for it. If you are careful about how you ask your questions, I'm sure you can avoid any problems with confirmation bias...

        • Which is why I suggest you question a number of people who are experienced with cattle and not take my word for it.

          Then I'm just taking x number of peoples' words for it instead of just one.

          If you are careful about how you ask your questions, I'm sure you can avoid any problems with confirmation bias...

          That sounds harder - and is certainly more subjective - than tagging up 70 cows and crunching the numbers with a computer.

          "60 per cent of their contacts occur during feeding which amounts to only 6 per cent of their time."

          I'm not sure you'd have got very close to uncovering those numbers no matter how many careful questions you asked of how many farmers.

    • by wcrowe (94389)

      I agree. Almost any farmer or rancher can attest to this behavior. My uncle was a farmer who raised cattle, and I spent a great deal of time at the farm with my cousin who was the same age. My uncle would typically have about 60-70 head at any given time and he pretty well know each one as an individual. Their behavior, such as who they "hung out" with, and so on, would give him clues to how they were faring; such as if an individual was sick, pregnant, or in some kind of distress.

      Nevertheless, I unders

    • [quote]
      Oh bull..... Why do you need a GPS collar to figure this out?
      [/quote]
      To turn common knowledge into science.
      I assume the scientists new about this behaviour before they started their work. Now other scientists can use this work as a basis for more advanced research, for example detecting if cows are happy by monitoring their social behaviour. Farmers already use this technique, but by turning it into science you might be able to compare the happiness of cows in different situations, at different times

    • Why do you need a GPS collar to figure this out?

      Did you physically watch your cows w/o interruption 24/7? Obvious by simple observation is incomplete information. An actual study need more.

    • Oh bull..... Why do you need a GPS collar to figure this out?

      You don't need the tracking system to figure it out... you need it to measure how much time they spend together, whether besides having a buddy they also form groups, how often they interact with their group or with random cows, etc. With these numbers they can model the spread of various diseases, how cow health changes their interactions, how feeding system changes cow socialization (that will need a similar study with a different feeding system), and perhaps other things. Also they can verify that it was

  • by spywhere (824072) on Monday August 04, 2014 @09:35AM (#47599487)
    How do they know when it's going to rain?
    They always lie down before it rains... are the cows hooked in to NOAA? Or, is that where AccuWeather gets that "probability of precipitation" number?
  • by jddj (1085169) on Monday August 04, 2014 @09:40AM (#47599511) Journal

    ...is what the ad revenue looks like on RuminantBook.

  • "It should help biologists more accurately model how disease spreads through herds of cattle and therefore better understand how to tackle epidemics."

    For me, it would be 'it should give people second thought on what we're doing to our fellow earthlings'.
  • How about privacy? If cows are social beings, shouldn't they have privacy? Do we need a Snowden to make the cows aware of the extensive monitoring they are subjected to?

  • by Animats (122034) on Monday August 04, 2014 @12:22PM (#47600977) Homepage

    It's not surprising that herds of cows have a social structure. They're herd animals. It may be hard to see in a feeding pen situation without this kind of tracking, but when they have a lot of room to move around, groups form. It's a bit harder to see this in a group of uniformly bred dairy cattle, though.

    Horse herd social structure is well understood. There are buddies, little groups, and an overall hierarchy. If you want to see the hierarchy, set out food buckets, one at a time, and see who eats first. The order will usually be the same each time you do this.

    Even chickens have a "pecking order".

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