SLU news

Associate Professor Maria Vilain Rørvang

Published: 27 March 2023

Congratulations to the newly appointed Associate Professor Maria Vilain Rørvang.

Animal perception and learning: Key aspects to ensure welfare

Maria Vilain Rørvang, Biosystems and Technology, SLU, Alnarp

To safeguard future high animal welfare, knowledge on how animals perceive and interact with their environment is needed. We share the five senses with the majority of mammalian farm animals, but does this mean we can assume animals to perceive and learn from their surroundings the same way we humans do? As research on perceptual and cognitive abilities of farm animals is strikingly sparse, there is a gap in science, which means that current housing systems may not be adapted to the animals. Hence, my research focusses on farm animal perception and learning, both in basic terms and in relation to management.

In my research group we have studied horse and cattle olfactory abilities, and developed testing regimes adapted for these large mammals. We have also shown that horses may be able to link taste and smell, which has never been reported before. In an on-going project on olfactory abilities of pigs, we have observed and defined new behaviours not previously described in pigs.

My research has also focussed on the cognitive abilities of farm animals, specifically on cattle where this topic is very slim. Can cows learn new behaviour from watching other cows? And would cows be less scared when kept with a calm companion?

It is my goal to contribute the knowledge needed to optimize the way we keep and manage large farm animals. Animal environments are shared between humans and animals and should be managed as such. I aim for the knowledge we generate to help avoid misunderstandings that cause inappropriate management, and instead promote future housing and management routines that are animal-based and safe. Both from an animal and a human perspective.