Reindeer accustomed to humans were able to understand gestures even with minimal training. This was reported by the press service of the University of Turku in Finland. The study was published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology.
It is natural for humans to use index gestures to communicate with other people and sometimes with animals. However, animals that do not use this method of communication are not always able to understand the directions. Therefore, the pointing gesture is often used in experiments designed to determine whether animals can understand human-specific cues.
Many species, such as dogs, primates, horses, goats or elephants, have already shown great potential in the ability to follow human gestures, but this has never been investigated in any deer species. The reindeer is the only species of deer that has been domesticated and used to carry heavy loads on sleds. Therefore, riding reindeer provides an excellent opportunity to study the cognitive abilities of these animals to follow human instructions.
The course of the experiment
The experimenter, standing between two closed buckets of lichen, pointed to one of the buckets by looking at it and coming closer to it. In order to get the lichen, the deer had to follow the direction of the gesture and approach the indicated bucket.
Four of the eight reindeer in the study failed the test. These reindeer were younger and had less experience interacting with humans. They showed signs of stress and had difficulty “understanding” what was going on.
Of the four reindeer strongly interested in participating in the experiment, two followed human instructions 9 out of 10 times. This indicates their ability to rely on cues given by humans.
Previous studies of other species have been conducted on captive and domesticated animals. Reindeer, on the other hand, have limited contact with humans and are only used in sledding during the winter season. Having received only minimal training in human interaction, these reindeer have done well at interpreting human signals.
The reindeer appeared to be able to understand human gestures, even with limited experience with humans. This may help scientists better understand the animals’ cognitive abilities and use this information in their training and education.