Portrait #3: Christian Nawroth

Dedicated - Dr. Christian Nawroth in human-animal interaction with the cunning FBN goats.
Photo: nordlicht/FBN

Goat Whisperer and Networker

It is probably also to the credit of Dr. Christian Nawroth that the popular saying "You stupid goat" has meanwhile been proven to be incorrect. Together with his research colleagues at the FBN Institute of Behavioural Physiology, for example, he was able to show that goats are good hat players and know when they are being observed.

For many years, the 37-year-old has dedicated himself to animal behaviour research and is considered one of the most active young scientists in this field, especially among farm animals. His main concern is to use this knowledge to improve the husbandry environment of animals and human-animal interactions.

Born in Brandenburg, his career path took him via Mühlberg on the Elbe, where he grew up, to the universities in Giessen and Würzburg. There he studied biology, because even as a schoolboy he had a keen interest in animals and the environment. At the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Saxony-Anhalt, the father of two earned his doctorate under the renowned Prof. Eberhard von Borell on the learning ability of ungulates. After successfully completing his dissertation, he spent two years as a post doc at Queen Mary University in London, until Dr. Christian Nawroth moved to the Leibniz Institute for Farm Animal Biology in Dummerstorf in 2017 as a post doc.

There he was able to start a large German-Swiss research project with wild and domestic goats under the lead of Dr. Jan Langbein (FBN) and Dr. Nina Keil (Agroscope Tänikon). For three years they have been jointly investigating the effects of long-term training on the keeping and welfare of the animals. The influence of domestication on learning behaviour and cognitive skills is also being investigated. The results of the three years of work are about to be published. The scientist appreciates the FBN's many years of know-how in behavioural research. "In addition to the good equipment and infrastructure, the scientific work at FBN in the field of farm animal behaviour and cognition is broadly based and specifically promoted“.

What attracts a scientist to behavioural research?
"You get a deep insight into how animals perceive their environment and how fundamentally different their perception can be from our own," says the biologist. The list of animals with which he has worked scientifically is long: ants, fruit flies, great apes, pigs, goats, sheep, penguins, horses and cows have already been the subject of his work. "Among farm animals, however, goats and pigs have always fascinated me the most.“

This is also due to the fact that the goats in particular have always surprised him with their intelligence. "I personally had the greatest AHA effect when we conducted an experiment on object permanence in goats at the FBN. Although we had hidden food under one of two hats and then swapped the two hats, the goats knew, similar to primates, that the object of desire still existed and had not really disappeared. This was one of many moments that taught me never to underestimate the mental abilities of farm animals.

There was also a huge international media response to the realisation that goats, like dogs, seek help from humans when faced with a problem that they cannot solve on their own. „Goats staring at men" also made good headlines. It was proven that animals know exactly who is watching them and paying attention to them. "Thus, behavioural research is making a decisive contribution to making people smarter about animals and their needs.“

Science communication as a social necessity
The young scientist would like the results of the research to be more publicly communicated and discussed in the exchange with colleagues, but also in society. In doing so, he sets a good example. He has over 3,500 followers on Twitter, the social media channel preferred by scientists (@GoatsThatStare). He has already sent or retweeted over 31,000 tweets. As the founder of the slack group "Animal Welfare", which now has more than 700 scientists, Dr. Christian Nawroth hosts biweekly webinars on animal welfare and behaviour.

He also blogs on his homepage (christiannawroth.wordpress.com) and publishes his current scientific work with open access licenses.
"I have had positive experiences with this almost without exception. I would like to encourage all scientists to question the current social visibility and transparency of their work. Social media in particular offer great opportunities to network and present one's research to a wider audience".

It is a matter principle for Rostock’s new resident to seek contact worldwide. But he feels he has finally arrived with his family at the Baltic Sea coast, even if he misses the English pub and pop culture a little. "I feel very much at home in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern - there is so much nature to discover. My favourite places are the beaches around Graal-Müritz, the forest on the Darß and the „Mecklenburger Switzerland“. For the last year and a half, Christian Nawroth has also had its own allotment garden. "There is something meditative about growing your own vegetables and fruits. The perfect place to be active and yet be able to relax.“