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Horse research wins top U.S. science prize for excellence

A psychology research paper explaining the complex way in which horses recognise each other has been awarded a prize by one of America’s leading academic science publications.

University of Sussex scientists Dr Karen McComb, Dr Leanne Proops and Dr David Reby – all members of the Centre for Mammal Vocal Communication Research in the Department of Psychology – were awarded the Cozzarelli Prize under the Behavioral and Social Sciences section for their article, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The Cozzarelli Prize is awarded to authors whose research papers exhibit outstanding scientific excellence and originality. The Sussex research paper – ‘Cross-modal individual recognition in domestic horses (Equus caballus)’ – was one of six papers selected from 3,500 published by PNAS in December 2008.

The researchers studied the reaction of horses to the sight of one member of the same herd while they heard the call of either the same horse or a different herd member.

They found that the horses showed a stronger reaction to the ‘incongruent’ calls –  ie those that didn’t match the herd member they had just seen – compared with the congruent calls.

The results suggest that horses, like humans, use a ‘cross modal’ system for recognising each other; one that involves a combination of sensory cues such as auditory, visual and olfactory information.

A PNAS commentary on the paper observes: “The result, although not surprising, is nonetheless the first clear demonstration that a non-human animal recognises members of its own species across sensory modalities. It raises intriguing questions about the origins of conceptual knowledge and the extent to which brain mechanisms in many species – birds, mammals, as well as humans – are essentially multisensory.”

Dr McComb and Dr Proops travelled to the United States at the end of April this year as guests of PNAS and were presented with their certificate at the Washington DC-based organisation’s Editorial Board Meeting. The award was also announced at the National Academy of Sciences Awards Ceremony.

Dr Proops, who was lead author and whose doctoral thesis was based on the research, said: "When we hear a familiar person’s voice we have an expectation of who it is and can associate their voice with what they look like, in other words, we are capable of cross modal individual recognition - our research demonstrates that horses also possess such an ability.”

Dr McComb said: “Our paper represents an important milestone because it indicates that in the normal process of identifying social companions of its own species, a non-human animal is capable of forming and accessing higher order mental representations that are independent of modality. We felt very honoured to receive the award.”

Dr Reby said: “Our new experimental paradigm can be adapted for work in both the lab and the field and we hope that it will stimulate similar studies in many other species.

A further highlight of the trip was an opportunity to hear President Barack Obama address the National Academy of Sciences.


Notes for Editors


Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) is published by the National Academy of Sciences and is one of the world’s most-cited multidisciplinary scientific journals, covering the biological, physical and social sciences.

The Cozzarelli Prize, formerly the Paper of the Year Prize, was renamed in 2006 after Nick Cozzarelli, a former Editor-in-Chief of PNAS, who encouraged researchers to push the boundaries of discovery.

For photographs and further information, contact the University of Sussex Press office.

Last updated: Monday, 6 July 2009