Horses and pigs sense harsh speaking tones

How we speak matters to animals. Horses, pigs and wild horses can distinguish between negative and positive sounds from their fellow species and near relatives, as well as from human speech. This, according to new research in behavioral biology at the University of Copenhagen. The study provides insight into the history of emotional development and opens up interesting perspectives with regards to animal welfare.

The idea of horse whisperers — those with a talent for communicating with horses — may bring a chuckle to many. But according to new research from the University of Copenhagen and ETH Zurich, there may be something about their whispering skills. In an international collaboration, along with researchers Anne-Laure Maigrot and Edna Hillmann, behavioral biologist Elodie Briefer of the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Biology investigated whether a range of animals can distinguish between positively and negatively charged sounds.

“The results showed that domesticated pigs and horses, as well as Asian wild horses, can tell the difference, both when the sounds come from their own species and near relatives, as well as from human voices,” explains Elodie Briefer. Pigs were studied along with boar, their wild relatives. Just as in the case of the two related horse species, the pigs clearly reacted to how the sounds of their counterparts were emotionally charged. In fact, to the same extent as when it came to sounds of their own kind.

The animals even showed the ability to distinguish between positively or negatively charged human voices. While their reactions were more subdued, all but wild boars reacted differently when exposed to human speech that was either charged with positive or negative emotion.

Human gibberish

The researchers played recordings of animal sounds and human voices from hidden speakers.

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