Sheep are able to recognize human faces from photographs, reveals new research.
The sheep chose familiar celebrity images – including actress Emma Watson and former US President Barack Obama – over an unfamiliar face.
And they could also recognize the celebrity faces when they were presented in different perspectives, an ability previously only shown in humans.
The celebrities were newsreader Fiona Bruce, actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Watson plus Obama.
Cambridge University researchers said their amazing findings show that sheep have face-recognition abilities, comparable to those of humans and non-human primates.
The study, published in the journal Royal Society: Open Science, is part a series of tests given to the sheep to monitor their cognitive abilities.
Because of the relatively large size of their brains and their longevity, the research team sheep are a good animal model for studying neurodegenerative disorders such as Huntington’s disease.
As with some other animals such as dogs and monkeys, sheep are social animals that can recognize other sheep as well as familiar humans.
But little is known about their overall ability to process faces.
The researchers from Cambridge’s Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience trained eight sheep to recognize the faces of the four celebrities from photographic portraits displayed on computer screens.
Training involved the sheep making decisions as they moved around a specially-designed pen.
At one end of the pen, they would see two photographs displayed on two computer screens and would receive a reward of food for choosing the photograph of the celebrity by breaking an infrared beam near the screen.
If they chose the wrong photo, a buzzer would sound and they wouldn’t receive a reward. Over time, they learn to associate a reward with the celebrity’s photograph.
After training, the sheep were shown two photograph – the celebrity’s face and another face. In this test, sheep correctly chose the learned celebrity face eight times out of ten.
In these initial tests, the sheep were shown the faces from the front, but to test how well they recognized the faces, the researchers next showed them the faces at an angle.
As expected, the sheep’s performance dropped, but only by about 15 percent – a figure comparable to that seen when humans perform the task.
Finally, the researchers looked at whether sheep were able to recognize a handler from a photograph without pre-training.
The handlers typically spent two hours a day with the sheep and so the sheep are very familiar with them.
When a portrait photograph of the handler was interspersed randomly in place of the celebrity, the sheep chose the handler’s photograph over the unfamiliar face seven out of 10 times.
During the final task the researchers noticed that when seeing a photographic image of the handler for the first time – in other words, the sheep had never seen an image of the person before – the sheep did a “double take.”
The sheep checked first the unfamiliar face, then the handler’s image and then the unfamiliar face again before making a decision to choose the familiar face, of the handler.
Study leader Professor Jenny Morton said: “Anyone who has spent time working with sheep will know that they are intelligent, individual animals who are able to recognize their handlers.”
“We’ve shown with our study that sheep have advanced face-recognition abilities, comparable with those of humans and monkeys.”
She added: “Sheep are long-lived and have brains that are similar in size and complexity to those of some monkeys.”
“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.”
Morton’s team recently began studying sheep that have been genetically modified to carry the mutation that causes the incurable neurodegenerative Huntington’s disease which affects more than 6,700 people in Britian.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in ny post