Sheep recognise faces as well as humans do – and it has a very important health benefit

If you were asked to name the most intelligent animal species off the top of your head, I doubt sheep would feature anywhere near the top of your list. Pick up a dictionary and it’ll tell you you that ‘sheep’ describes someone who is easily led, so surely that’s all you need to know? Apparently not. Scientists from Cambridge’s Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience have discovered that the woolly creatures could be as good at remembering a face as humans and monkeys, so maybe we should stop seeing them as dim-witted?

Sheep recognise faces as well as humans do - and it has a very important health benefit

For a study published today in Royal Society: Open Science, researchers trained sheep to recognise the faces of Emma Watson, Barack Obama, Fiona Bruce and Jake Gyllenhaal. They did this by rewarding the sheep with food whenever they walked towards an image of one of the celebrities, rather than an unfamiliar face.

celebritiesAfter 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. They were able to identify the celebrity’s faces from different angles to those they’d learned (although a drop off in performance of about 15% was noted), demonstrating that they’re anything but stupid.

In fact, the sheep were even able to identify the faces of their handlers without training. They were naturally familiar with their handlers, having spent up to two hours a day with them, so when a photo of the handler was swapped with that of the celebrity, they successfully picked it seven times out of ten.

Why does this matter?

So how can we benefit from the fact that sheep are smarter than we first thought? It’s unlikely they’ll start herding themselves by being shown pictures of Emma Watson and Barack Obama, but it’s thought that their brains could help us to better understand conditions that affect humans such Huntington’s disease. Professor Jenny Morton, who led the study explained: “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.”

This study is part of a series of tests into the cognitive abilities of sheep and Morton’s team recently started studying sheep that have been genetically modified to carry the mutation that causes Huntington’s disease.

At the very least, it’s clear that we should reassess our opinions of the farm animal. You should also make sure you never commit a crime in front of one, because they’ll remember your face and have no problem picking you out in a police lineup. Especially if you were once president of the United States.

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