When humans share a traumatic experience it can lead to firm friendships, and an Australian research team has discovered the same is true for sheep.
For two months a team from national science agency CSIRO watched how 50 merino sheep interacted after some were exposed to stress.
Satellite tracking devices were strapped to the sheep and exposed half the group to experiences like dog herding and shearing between the legs and around the tail.
Sheep who experienced the same stress mostly snuggled up and bonded.
“We found they did start to spend time with those sheep they had shared the stress with compared to other sheep they didn’t know and didn’t have any kind of shared experience with,” CSIRO researcher Dana Campbell said.
The animal behaviour scientist said the findings challenged the common perception of sheep being dumb.
Dr Campbell said the sheep included in the project may have remembered the faces or scents of those they experienced stress with.
“We’re not sure of the communication mode, but yes, there seems to be something,” she said.
“It really points to how clever they are.”
Dr Campbell urged people not to underestimate the complexity, capability and social intelligence of sheep.
The research is designed to help farmers and others understand how animals develop relationships and could help reduce negative experiences by allowing them to bond.
The team is also keen to examine how positive experiences impact social relationships, just like they do among humans.
“Now we have this ability to track the relationships, the questions are endless,” Dr Campbell said.
The sheep research has been published in peer-reviewed scientific journal Biology Letters.
(Australian Associated Press)