Laterality as an indicator of emotional stress in ewes and lambs during a separation test

Shanis Barnard*, Lindsay Matthews, Stefano Messori, Michele Podaliri-Vulpiani, Nicola Ferri

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Citations (Scopus)


We assessed motor laterality in sheep to explore species-specific brain hemi-field dominance and how this could be affected by genetic or developmental factors. Further, we investigated whether directionality and strength of laterality could be linked to emotional stress in ewes and their lambs during partial separation. Forty-three ewes and their singleton lambs were scored on the (left/right) direction of turn in a y-maze to rejoin a conspecific (laterality test). Further, their behavioural response (i.e. time spent near the fence, vocalisations, and activity level) during forced separation by an open-mesh fence was assessed (separation test). Individual laterality was recorded for 44.2 % ewes (significant right bias) and 81.4 % lambs (equally biased to the left and the right). There was no significant association in side bias between dams and offspring. The Chi-squared test revealed a significant population bias for both groups (p < 0.05). Evolutionary adaptive strategies or stimuli-related visual laterality may provide explanation for this decision-making process. Absolute strength of laterality (irrespective of side) was high (Kolmogorov–Smirnov test, dams: D = 0.2; p < 0.001; lambs: D = 0.36, p < 0.0001). The Wilcoxon test showed that lateralised lambs and dams spent significantly more time near each other during separation than non-lateralised animals (p < 0.05), and that lateralised dams were also more active than non-lateralised ones. Arguably, the lateralised animals showed a greater attraction to their pair because they were more disturbed and thus required greater reassurance. The data show that measures of laterality offer a potential novel non-invasive indicator of separation stress.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)207-214
Number of pages8
JournalAnimal Cognition
Issue number1
Early online date03 Oct 2015
Publication statusPublished - 01 Jan 2016


  • Emotional process
  • Laterality
  • Sheep
  • Stress
  • Welfare

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology


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