Sheep can remember faces

Pablo Tucker
November 8, 2017

They also recognized those faces when presented with a photo taken from a different angle, although their success rate dropped by approximately 15 per cent. That means the sheep were not just memorizing images, demonstrating for the first time that sheep have advanced face-recognition capabilities similar to those of humans and other primates, say neurobiologist Jennifer Morton and her colleagues.

According to the release, sheep now join the hall of fame of animal geniuses, including horses, dogs, rhesus macaques and mockingbirds, that are able to distinguish between individuals of other species and not just members of their pack or tribe.

Scientists showed how they could be taught to recognise screen-shot images of celebrity faces using food rewards.

After training, the sheep were then shown two images again - the face of a learned celebrity and an unknown face - and eight times out of ten they made a beeline towards the celebrities with all the enthusiasm of a grade-A autograph hunter.

The experiment was performed on eight Female Welsh Mountain Sheep who were trained to mark out photos of familiar people over unfamiliar ones.

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 ten times. A celebrity's face would appear on one screen, while a different image appeared on the other. Picking the celebrity earned a sheep a food-pellet reward, said the release. The sheep were able to recognize the celebrities about 68 percent of the time on average here too.

In a fifth, and final task, the sheep were shown a photograph of their day-to-day handler - who they know well but have never seen a picture of - next to that of an unknown person.

The new evidence suggests that sheep can process information about a human face without requiring a 3-D "real person", said Morton. "By studying how sheep learn, we can understand normal brain function and explore how this changes with disease", researchers wrote in the study, which is published in the journal Royal Society: Open Science. "Either the human face is similar enough to the sheep face that [it] activates the sheep face-processing system, or human-face recognition relies on more general-purpose recognition systems".

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