Sheep are capable of recognizing human faces, study reports

Sheep may have the same facial recognition ability as primates.
By Sarah Webb | Nov 10, 2017
Researchers from Cambridge University have found that sheep have the ability to recognize and distinguish between human faces, according to astudy published in the journalOpen Biology.

In the new research, the team managed to train sheep to identify the faces of Jake Gyllenhaal, Emma Watson, former President Barack Obama, as well as BBC newsreader Fiona Bruce.

To do this, they first trained eight female Welsh Mountain sheep to recognize the famous faces from a range of unfamiliar ones by using food pellets as a reward. The animals were shown different pictures on two computer screens, and if they broke an infrared beam with their noses on the correct picture, they would get a treat.

The mammals chose the correct photos almost every single time, which suggests the species has the ability to recognize faces in the same way primates do.

"What we did is ask whether a sheep could learn to recognise someone from a photograph," said lead author Jenny Morton, a professor at Cambridge University, according to BBC News. "We focused on whether or not an animal was capable of processing a two-dimensional object as a person."

Once the sheep showed they could recognize the four faces, the team then tested them to see if farm animals could correctly identify the same celebrities when pictured from different angles. The sheep also managed to do that with a lot of success.

The team hopes to expand on this research in the future. That could not only let them learn more about the way sheep think, but it may also help researchers get a better understanding of different cognitive diseases.

"Sheep are long-lived and have brains that are similar in size and complexity to those of some monkeys," added Morton, in a statement. "That means they can be useful models to help us understand disorders of the brain, such as Huntington's disease, that develop over a long time and affect cognitive abilities. Our study gives us another way to monitor how these abilities change, particularly in sheep who carry the gene mutation that causes Huntington's disease."

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