Cross-modal individual recognition in domestic horses
Leanne Proops1, Karen McComb1, and David Reby
Centre for Mammal Vocal Communication Research, Department of Psychology, School of Life Sciences, University of Sussex,
Brighton BN1 9QH, United Kingdom
Edited by Jeanne Altmann, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, and approved November 6, 2008 (received for review September 16, 2008)
Individual recognition is considered a complex process and, al-
though it is believed to be widespread across animal taxa, the
cognitive mechanisms underlying this ability are poorly under-
stood. An essential feature of individual recognition in humans is
that it is cross-modal, allowing the matching of current sensory
cues to identity with stored information about that specific indi-
vidual from other modalities. Here, we use a cross-modal expect-
ancy violation paradigm to provide a clear and systematic dem-
onstration of cross-modal individual recognition in a nonhuman
animal: the domestic horse. Subjects watched a herd member
being led past them before the individual went of view, and a call
from that or a different associate was played from a loudspeaker
positioned close to the point of disappearance. When horses were
shown one associate and then the call of a different associate was
played, they responded more quickly and looked significantly
longer in the direction of the call than when the call matched the
herd member just seen, an indication that the incongruent com-
bination violated their expectations. Thus, horses appear to pos-
sess a cross-modal representation of known individuals containing
unique auditory and visual/olfactory information. Our paradigm
could provide a powerful way to study individual recognition
across a wide range of species.
animal cognition ? vocal communication ? social behavior ?
playback experiment ? expectancy violation
social world (1). Discrimination of kin from nonkin, and of
individuals within both of these categories, is proposed to be of
major significance in the evolution of social behavior (2, 3).
Individual recognition can be seen as the most fine-grained
categorization of conspecifics, and there is considerable interest
in discovering the prevalence and complexity of this ability
across species. While individual recognition is generally believed
to be widespread (4), there is much debate as to what constitutes
sound evidence of this ability (5). To demonstrate individual
recognition, a paradigm must show that (i) discrimination op-
erates at the level of the individual rather than at a broader level,
and (ii) there is a matching of current sensory cues to identity
with information stored in memory about that specific individ-
ual. Numerous studies to date have provided evidence for some
form of social discrimination of auditory stimuli, but how this is
achieved remains unclear. It is of considerable interest to
establish whether any animal is capable of cross-modal integra-
tion of cues to identity, as this would suggest that in addition to
the perception and recognition of stimuli in one domain, the
brain could integrate such information into some form of
higher-order representation that is independent of modality.
A number of species have been shown to make very fine-
grained discriminations between different individuals (6–8). For
example, in the habituation–dishabituation paradigm, subjects
that are habituated to the call of one known individual will
dishabituate when presented with the calls of a different known
individual. What is unclear from this result is whether discrim-
ination occurs because listeners simply detect an acoustic dif-
ow animals classify conspecifics provides insights into the
social structure of a species and how they perceive their
ference between the two calls or because, on hearing the first
call, listeners form a multi-modal percept of a specific individual
and then react strongly to the second call not only because of its
different acoustic properties, but also because it activates a
multi-modal percept of a different individual. Alternative ap-
proaches that go some way to addressing this issue have shown
subjects to be capable of associating idiosyncratic cues with
certain forms of stored information such as rank category or
territory (9–12). However, paradigms to date do not allow
researchers to adequately assess whether this form of recogni-
tion is cross-modal.
One rigorous way to demonstrate cross-modal individual
recognition is to show that an animal associates a signaler’s
vocalization with other forms of information they have previ-
ously acquired in another modality that are uniquely related to
that signaler. By presenting a cue to the identity of a familiar
associate in one modality and then, once that cue is removed,
presenting another familiar cue, either congruous or incongru-
ous in another modality, we can assess whether the presentation
of the first cue activates some form of preexisting multi-modal
representation of that individual, creating an ‘‘expectation’’ that
the subsequent cue will correspond to that associate.
In our study, horses were shown 1 of 2 herd mates who was
then led past them and disappeared behind a barrier. After a
delay of at least 10 s, the subjects were then played either a call
from that associate (congruent trial) or a call from another
familiar herd mate (incongruent trial) from a loudspeaker
placed close to the point of disappearance. Each of 24 horses
participated in a total of four trials: a congruent trial where they
saw stimulus horse 1 and heard stimulus horse 1, an incongruent
trial where they saw stimulus horse 1 and heard stimulus horse
2, and, the balanced counterparts, a congruent trial where they
saw stimulus horse 2 and heard stimulus horse 2 and an
incongruent trial where they saw stimulus horse 2 and heard
stimulus horse 1 (Fig. 1). Four different pairs of stimulus horses
were presented across subjects with six subjects being exposed to
each pair. Each subject was presented with a different call
exemplar for each associate, so that a total of 48 exemplars were
used in the playbacks. The order of trials was counterbalanced
If horses have some form of cross-modal representation of
known individuals, and this representation contains unique
auditory, visual, and potentially olfactory information, we pre-
dicted that the presentation of mismatched cues to identity
would violate their expectations. This violation of expectation
Author contributions: L.P., K.M., and D.R. designed research; L.P. performed research; L.P.
analyzed data; and L.P., K.M., and D.R. wrote the paper.
The authors declare no conflict of interest.
This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.
See Commentary on page 669.
1To whom correspondence may be addressed: firstname.lastname@example.org or karenm@
© 2008 by The National Academy of Sciences of the USA
January 20, 2009 ?
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time in the direction of the vocalization during incongruent
compared to congruent trials (13).
Behavioral responses in the 60 s following the onset of the
playbacks are shown in Fig. 2. As predicted, horses responded
more quickly to incongruent calls than to congruent calls
(response latency: F1,20? 5.136, P ? 0.035); they also looked in
the direction of the stimulus horse more often and for a longer
time in the incongruent trials (number of looks, F1,20? 4.730,
P ? 0.042; total looking time, F1,20? 5.208, P ? 0.034). There
was no significant difference in the duration of the first look
(duration of first look: F1,20? 2.802, P ? 0.110). These responses
did not differ significantly from the first presentation of the calls
in trials one and two to the second presentation in trials three
and four (response latency, F1,20? 0.900, P ? 0.354; number of
looks, F1,20? 0.019, P ? 0.891; total looking time, F1,20? 0.455,
P ? 0.508; duration of first look, F1,20 ? 0.118, P ? 0.735).
Neither did subject results differ significantly according to which
stimulus horse pair they were presented with (response latency,
F3,20? 1.278, P ? 0.350; number of looks, F3,20? 1.707, P ?
0.198; total looking time, F3,20? 2.098, P ? 0.309; duration of
first look, F3,20? 1.996, P ? 0.147). There were no significant
interactions between the factors. Horses called in response to
playbacks during 12 of the 96 trials and calling was not obviously
biased toward congruent or incongruent trials (subjects called in
5 congruent compared to 7 incongruent trials).
For each of the four behavioral responses, the scores for the
congruent trials were also subtracted from those for the incon-
gruent trials to produce overall recognition ability scores for
each subject. Unlike some species, where social knowledge
appears to be greater in older animals (7), this research showed
no evidence that the ability to recognize the identity of the
callers improved with age in an adult population (response
latency, r22 ? ?0.015, P ? 0.944; total looking time, r22 ?
?0.014, P ? 0.947; number of looks, r22? ?0.057, P ? 0.793;
duration of first look, r22? 0.203, P ? 0.341). Neither were there
any differences in the recognition abilities of male and female
horses (response latency, F1,22? 0.021, P ? 0.885; total looking
time, F1,22? 0.153, P ? 0.700; number of looks, F1,22? 0.002,
P ? 0.967; duration of first look, F1,22? 0.070, P ? 0.794).
Overall, horses responded quicker, and looked for a longer time,
during trials in which the familiar call heard did not match the
familiar horse previously seen, indicating that the incongruent
combination violated their expectations. Given that the stimulus
horse was out of sight when the vocal cue was heard, our
paradigm requires that some form of multi-modal memory of
that individual’s characteristics had to be accessed/activated for
this result to be obtained. This is the first clear empirical
demonstration that in the normal process of identifying social
companions of its own species, a nonhuman animal is capable of
cross-modal individual recognition.
The ability to transfer information cross-modally was once
thought to be unique to humans (14). At the neural level,
however, areas responsible for the integration of audiovisual
information have now been located in the primate brain. Images
of species-specific vocalizations or the vocalizations themselves
each produce activation of the auditory cortex and higher-order
visual areas and areas of association cortex that contain neurons
sensitive to multi-modal information (15–17). This neural cir-
cuitry corresponds closely to areas in the human brain that
support cross-modal representation of conspecifics and in which
differences in activity have been found for presentation of
congruent vs. incongruent face–voice pairs (16, 18). Such sim-
ilarities between human and animal brain function suggest that
the possession of higher-order representations that are indepen-
dent of modality is not unique to humans. Indeed, Ghazanfar
(19) considers the neocortex to be essentially multisensory in
nature, implying that some degree of cross-modal processing is
likely to be widespread across mammal taxa.
At the behavioral level, a number of species have recently
proved capable of integrating multisensory information in a
socially relevant way. Nonhuman primates can process audio-
visual information cross-modally to match indexical cues (20)
(detailed in text).
Diagrammatic representation of the experimental paradigm, as applied to one of our 24 subjects. Each subject receives a balanced set of four trials
www.pnas.org?cgi?doi?10.1073?pnas.0809127105Proops et al.
and number of vocalizers (21), to match and tally quantity
across senses (22) and associate the sound of different call
types with images of conspecifics and heterospecifics produc-
ing these calls (23–25). Research aimed specifically at inves-
tigating the categorization of individuals has shown that
hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus) are capable of matching mul-
tiple scent cues to the same individual (26) and that certain
highly enculturated chimps (Pan troglodytes) can, through
intensive training, learn to associate calls from known indi-
viduals with images of those individuals (27–29). Some species
have also been shown to spontaneously integrate auditory and
visual identity cues from their one highly familiar human
caretaker during interspecific, lab-based trials (30, 31).
Here we demonstrate cross-modal individual recognition of
conspecifics in a naturalistic setting by providing evidence that
horses possess cross-modal representations that are precise
enough to enable discrimination between, and recognition of,
two highly familiar associates. The use of two stimulus horses
randomly chosen from the herd indicates that our subjects are
capable of recognizing the calls of a larger number of familiar
individuals, an essential feature of genuine individual recogni-
tion (5, 8). If one associate had been slightly more familiar or
preferred causing subjects to respond primarily on the basis of
differing levels of familiarity, this would have produced biases in
favor of the cues of certain individuals that would have been
detected in the pattern of the results.
Conducting cross-modal expectancy violation studies in a
controlled yet ecologically relevant setting provides the oppor-
tunity to reevaluate and extend the findings of field studies by
formally assessing the cognitive processes at work in these
situations. Such studies have demonstrated that elephants (Lox-
odonta africana) keep track of the whereabouts of associates by
using olfactory cues (32) and that some primates can distinguish
between the sound of congruous and incongruous rank inter-
actions and react to acoustic information in ways that suggest
they may match calls to specific individuals (9, 33, 34). Our
results indicate that cross-modal individual recognition may
indeed underpin the complex classification of conspecifics re-
ported and potentially provides a practical and standardized
method through which this possibility could be tested directly.
Understanding the extent and nature of abilities to form
representations across species is key to understanding the evo-
lution of animal communication and cognition and is of interest
to psychologists, neuroscientists, and ethologists. Our demon-
stration of the spontaneous multisensory integration of cues to
identity by domestic horses presents a clear parallel to human
individual recognition and provides evidence that some nonhu-
man animals are capable of processing social information about
identity in an integrated and cognitively complex way.
Materials and Methods
Study Animals. Twenty-four horses, 12 from Woodingdean livery
yard, Brighton, U.K., and 12 from the Sussex Horse Rescue
Trust, Uckfield, East Sussex, U.K., participated in the study.
Ages ranged from 3 to 29 years (12.63 ? 1.56) and included 13
gelded males and 11 females. At both sites subjects live outside
all year in fairly stable herds of ?30 individuals. The horses from
Woodingdean yard are privately owned and are brought in from
the herd regularly for feeding; some of them are ridden. The
horses at the Sussex Horse Rescue Trust are checked once a day
study site were chosen to be ‘‘stimulus horses’’; these were
randomly selected from the horses for which we had recorded a
sufficient number of good quality calls. The horses chosen as
subjects were unrelated to the stimulus horses, had no known
hearing or eyesight problems, and were comfortable with being
handled. Only horses that had been part of the herd for at least
6 months could participate to ensure that the subjects would be
subjects had not been used in any other studies.
Call Acquisition. We recorded the long distance contact calls
(whinnies) of herd members ad libitum. Whinnies are used by
both adult and young horses when separated from the group
(35–37). All calls were recorded in a situation where the horses
had been isolated either from the herd or from a specific herd
mate or when the horses were calling to their handler around
feeding time. Recordings were made of both herds between
February and September, 2007 by using a Sennheisser MKH 816
directional microphone with windshield linked to a Tascam
HD-P2 digital audio recorder. Calls were recorded in mono at
distances between 1 and 30 m, with a sampling frequency of 48
kHz and a sampling width of 24 bit. Six good-quality recordings,
taken on at least two separate occasions, were randomly chosen
for each stimulus horse as auditory stimuli. This enabled us to
present each subject with a unique call from each stimulus horse
to avoid the problem of pseudoreplication (38).
Playback Procedure. Subjects were held by a naive handler on a
loose lead rope during trials to prevent them from walking
away or approaching their associates. For each subject, one of
two possible ‘‘stimulus horses’’ was held for ?60 s a few meters
in front of them. The stimulus horse was then led behind a
barrier and from this point of disappearance, after a delay of
at least 10 s, the subjects were played two identical calls with
a 15-s interval between each call. Previous work has shown that
horses have a short-term spatial memory of ?10 s in a delayed
response task (39); thus the delay in our recognition task
ensured that some form of stored information had to be
accessed. The call played was either from the stimulus horse
just seen (congruent trial) or from the other stimulus horse
(incongruent trial). The subjects were given the four counter-
subjects during incongruent and congruent trials (*, P ? 0.05).
Estimated marginal means ? SEM for the behavioral responses of
Proops et al.PNAS ?
January 20, 2009 ?
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no. 3 ?
balanced combinations with inter-trial intervals of at least 4
days to prevent habituation (see Fig. 1).
Four pairs of stimulus horses were used, being presented to six
subjects each. Presentation of trials and stimulus horses were
counterbalanced in that each stimulus horse was used in trials
one and two (one congruent, one incongruent) for three subjects
of congruent and incongruent trials was counterbalanced across
subjects with the constraint that the calls of the stimulus horses
were presented alternately.
Vocalizations were played from a Liberty Explorer PB-
2500-W powered speaker attached to a Macbook Intel com-
puter. Intensity levels were normalized to 75 dB (? 5 dB) and
calls were broadcast at peak pressure level of 98 dB peak SPL at
1 m from the source (taken as the average output volume of
a Sony digital handycam DCR-TRV19E video recorder. Han-
dlers were naive to the identity of the callers. They were asked
to hold the horses in front of the video camera on as loose a rope
as possible, allowing the horses to graze and move around freely
on the rope. The handlers remained still, looking at the ground
and did not interact with the subjects.
Behavioral and Statistical Analysis of Responses. Videotapes were
converted to .mov files and analyzed frame by frame (frame,
0.04 s) on a Mac G4 powerbook, by using Gamebreaker 5.1 video
analysis software (40). The total time subjects spent looking in
the direction of the speaker in the 60 s following the onset of the
playbacks was recorded. The onset of the look was defined as
the frame at which the horse’s head began to move toward the
speaker, having previously been held in another position. A fixed
look toward the speaker was then given and the end of the look
was taken to be the frame at which the horse began to move his
head in a direction away from the speaker. A look was defined
as being in the direction of the call if the horse’s nose was facing
a point within 45° to the left or the right of the speaker. The
duration of the first look toward the speaker, the total number
of looks, and the total looking time were recorded. Latency to
respond to the call was also measured and defined as the number
of seconds between the onset of the call and the beginning of the
first look in the direction of the speaker. For subjects that did not
respond, a maximum time of 60 s was assigned.
(20.8%) were scored by a second coder, providing an inter-
observer reliability of 0.968 (P ? 0.0001) for total looking time,
0.992 (P ? 0.0001) for response latency, 0.907 (P ? 0.0001) for
number of looks, and 0.995 (P ? 0.0001) for duration of first
look, measured by Spearman’s rho correlation. The distributions
of scores for total looking time, duration of first looks, and
number of looks were positively skewed and so were log10
transformed to normalize the data. The distribution of the
response latency scores was bimodal and so a fourth root
transformation was performed. Results were analyzed by using
2 ? 2 ? 4 mixed-factor ANOVAs with condition (congruent/
incongruent) and trial (trials 1 and 2 using stimulus horse 1/trials
3 and 4 using stimulus horse 2) as within-subject factors and
stimulus pair (which pair of stimulus horses were presented) as
a between-subjects factor. Each dependent variable (total look
duration, duration of first look, number of looks, and response
latency) was analyzed in a separate ANOVA. The effect of age
and sex was investigated by subtracting the congruent responses
from the incongruent responses and adding up the total for each
subject to obtain a measurement of the magnitude of difference
in responding to congruent and incongruent trials for each
subject, i.e., (incongruent trial 1 ? congruent trial 1) ? (incon-
gruent trial 2 – congruent trial 2). A score of 0 would indicate
no difference in the behavior of a subject across the trial types,
a positive score would indicate a larger response to the
incongruent trials, and a negative score would indicate a
greater response to the congruent trials. This measurement of
the degree of recognition by each subject was calculated for the
four behavioral responses and was correlated with age of
subjects, by using Pearson’s correlation coefficient. The rec-
ognition score for male and female subjects was compared by
using a one-way ANOVA.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS. We are grateful to the staff members at the Sussex
Horse Rescue Trust and the owners of the horses at the Woodingdean livery
yard for their support and willingness to facilitate this project. We thank
Charles Hamilton for his help with data collection and second coding and
Stuart Semple for comments on the manuscript. We also thank the Editor and
the reviewers for their helpful suggestions in revising the manuscript. This
animal research and welfare and the University of Sussex regulations on the use
and Biological Sciences Research Council (to L.P., supervised by K.M.).
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