Evidence from humans suggests that the expression of emotions can regulate social interactions and promote coordination within a group. Despite its evolutionary importance, social communication of emotions in non-human animals is still not well understood. Here, we combine behavioural and physiological measures, to determine if animals can distinguish between vocalisations linked to different emotional valences (positive and negative). Using a playback paradigm, goats were habituated to listen to a conspecific call associated with positive or negative valence (habituation phase) and were subsequently exposed to a variant of the same call type (contact call) associated with the opposite valence (dishabituation phase), followed by a final call randomly selected from the habituation phase as control (rehabituation phase). The effects of the calls on the occurrence of looking and cardiac responses in these phases were recorded and compared.
We found that when the valence of the call variant changed, goats were more likely to look at the source of the sound, indicating that they could distinguish calls based on their valence. Heart rate was not affected by the valence of the calls played, whereas heart-rate variability tended to be higher in the habituation and rehabituation phases, when positive calls were played compared to negative ones. Together, the behavioural and physiological measures provide evidence suggesting, first, that goats are able to distinguish call variants based on their valence, and second, that goat behaviour and cardiac responses are affected by call valence.
This study indicates that auditory modalities are a potent means to communicate emotions in non-human animals. These findings can contribute to our understanding of the evolution of emotion perception in non-human animals.