Last updated December 4, 2017 at 4:52 pm
To most people, sheep aren’t smart. Most people think they just stand in a field all day eating grass gormlessly. But they do have a pretty nifty party trick which might prove they’re smarter than they appear – they can recognise people in photographs, including celebrities.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge trained eight sheep to recognise the faces of four celebrities (Fiona Bruce, Jake Gyllenhaal, Barack Obama and Emma Watson) from photographs. They were also able to recognise a photograph of their handler without any training at all.
The ability to recognise faces is one of the most important human social skills. We can recognise familiar faces easily and can identify unfamiliar faces. While other social animals such as dogs and monkeys also share this ability, little is known about sheep’s ability to process faces. Because of the relatively large size of their brains and their longevity, sheep are a good animal model for studying neurodegenerative disorders such as Huntington’s disease, so understanding their cognitive abilities is important for future research.
“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,” said Prof Jenny Morton who led the research.
During the task, sheep were shown photographs on computer screens and would receive a reward of food for choosing the photograph of the celebrity. If they chose the wrong photograph, a buzzer would sound and they would receive no reward. Over time, they learn to associate a reward with the celebrity’s photograph.
Following this training, the sheep were shown two photographs – the celebrity’s face and another person. Sheep correctly chose the learned celebrity face eight times out of ten.
Changing the photo to show the same celebrity from an angle reduced the sheep’s ability to recognise the image only by about 15%, which is about the same reduction as when humans do the same test.
When a photograph of the sheep’s handler was interspersed randomly in place of the celebrity, the animals chose the handler’s photograph over an unfamiliar face seven out of ten times.
Interestingly, when the sheep saw the image of their handler for the first time, and having never seen a photograph of their handler before, the sheep did a ‘double take’. The sheep checked first the (unfamiliar) face, then the handler’s image, and then looked at the unfamiliar face again, before deciding to choose the face of the handler.
“Anyone who has spent time working with sheep will know that they are intelligent, individual animals who are able to recognise their handlers,” said Morton. “We’ve shown with our study that sheep have advanced face-recognition abilities, comparable with those of humans and monkeys.”
So maybe they’re smarter than we give them credit for after all.
The research was published in Royal Society Open Science