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, 4 (2), e4441

Individual Recognition in Domestic Cattle (Bos Taurus): Evidence From 2D-images of Heads From Different Breeds


Individual Recognition in Domestic Cattle (Bos Taurus): Evidence From 2D-images of Heads From Different Breeds

Marjorie Coulon et al. PLoS One.


Background: In order to maintain cohesion of groups, social animals need to process social information efficiently. Visual individual recognition, which is distinguished from mere visual discrimination, has been studied in only few mammalian species. In addition, most previous studies used either a small number of subjects or a few various views as test stimuli. Dairy cattle, as a domestic species allow the testing of a good sample size and provide a large variety of test stimuli due to the morphological diversity of breeds. Hence cattle are a suitable model for studying individual visual recognition. This study demonstrates that cattle display visual individual recognition and shows the effect of both familiarity and coat diversity in discrimination.

Methodology/principal findings: We tested whether 8 Prim'Holstein heifers could recognize 2D-images of heads of one cow (face, profiles, (3/4) views) from those of other cows. Experiments were based on a simultaneous discrimination paradigm through instrumental conditioning using food rewards. In Experiment 1, all images represented familiar cows (belonging to the same social group) from the Prim'Holstein breed. In Experiments 2, 3 and 4, images were from unfamiliar (unknown) individuals either from the same breed or other breeds. All heifers displayed individual recognition of familiar and unfamiliar individuals from their own breed. Subjects reached criterion sooner when recognizing a familiar individual than when recognizing an unfamiliar one (Exp 1: 3.1+/-0.7 vs. Exp 2: 5.2+/-1.2 sessions; Z = 1.99, N = 8, P = 0.046). In addition almost all subjects recognized unknown individuals from different breeds, however with greater difficulty.

Conclusions/significance: Our results demonstrated that cattle have efficient individual recognition based on categorization capacities. Social familiarity improved their performance. The recognition of individuals with very different coat characteristics from the subjects was the most difficult task. These results call for studies exploring the mechanisms involved in face recognition allowing interspecies comparisons, including humans.

Conflict of interest statement

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


Figure 1
Figure 1. Example of stimuli used in the experiment of the recognition of a familiar Prim'Holstein individual.
Ten views represented the sample individuals (A) and ten views represented three other individuals (B). In training, a frontal view of a face (the first line of the figure) of the sample individual (A) had to be discriminated from a frontal view of an individual in the group (B). In generalization test, for each trial, an image of the sample individual (A) and an image of a cow from the group (B) were randomly selected and presented simultaneously. For the second experiment, individuals were unfamiliar Prim'Holstein cows, for the third experiment unfamiliar Normande cows and for the last experiment unfamiliar Charolaise cows.
Figure 2
Figure 2. Individual recognition of a familiar Prim'Holstein cow.
Example of the pairs of stimuli presented in consecutive trials of the generalization test. The stimulus rewarded is framed in red.
Figure 3
Figure 3. Individual recognition of a familiar versus an unfamiliar conspecific.
Number of sessions (Mean+SE) to reach the criterion level during the training and the generalization phases in experiments 1 (familiar Prim'Holstein) and 2 (unfamiliar Prim'Holstein) (N = 9, * = P<0.05).
Figure 4
Figure 4. Performance of heifers during the generalization tests of the four experiments.
Subjects recognized a familiar Prim'Holstein individual (experiment 1), an unfamiliar Prim'Holstein individual (experiment 2), an unfamiliar Normande individual (experiment 3) and an unfamiliar Charolaise individual (experiment 4). The minimum number of sessions to validate the criterion level (8/10 in two consecutive sessions) is indicated with a dotted line and the maximum number of sessions realized in an experiment (25 sessions) with a continuous line. One session corresponds to 10 consecutive trials. Along the x axis, subjects (Ind. 1 to Ind. 8) are sorted according to decreasing age (oldest to youngest).
Figure 5
Figure 5. Individual recognition of an unfamiliar individual of the same Prim'Holstein breed and of other breeds.
Number of sessions (Mean+S.E.) to reach the criterion level during the training and the generalization phases for the experiments 2 (Prim'Holstein breed), 3 (Normande breed) and 4 (Charolaise breed) (N = 9, * = P<0.05, ** = P<0.01).

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