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Horses' Ears And Eyes Are 'Communication Tools'

Update Date: Aug 05, 2014 11:37 AM EDT

Horses' large and highly mobile ears can help tell another horse where to direct its attention, a new study has found. 

This study conducted by the researchers at the University of Sussex tested the extent to which horses rely on the information relayed by the eyes and ears of their fellow horses. 

Researchers first photographed horses in a pasture looking at one of two buckets of food. The one set of photographs consisted horse's ears covered by mask while the other set had horse's eyes covered. Another set of photos showed the horse's head as normal. 

Researchers then turned these pictures into live-size pictures for a horse to look at as it chose between one of two buckets of food. 

Researchers noted that the hoses were able to recognize that they were looking at another horse in the photo. 

"It seems there's something in the visual cues - from both the eyes and the ears - that are really important," lead researcher Jennifer Wathan told BBC News.

"Horses have quite rich social lives and relationships with other horses, so they're a good species to look at this in.

"And the more we look at communication across different species, the more we can consider what might have promoted the evolution of sophisticated communication and social skills."

When horses looked at a photo from the third set, where both eyes and ears were uncovered, they picked the bucket of food the horse in the photo was looking at about 75 percent of the time, National Geographic wrote.  

"Previous work investigating communication of attention has focused on cues that humans use -- body orientation, head orientation and eye gaze," said mammal communication expert Jennifer Wathan, according to UPI. "But no one had gone beyond that."

"We found that in horses, their ear position was also a crucial visual signal," Wathan added. "In fact, horses needed to see the detailed facial features of both eyes and ears before they would use another horse's head direction to guide their choice."

The study has been published in the journal Current Biology. 

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