Guess What? Sheep Can Recognize Human Faces!

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Photo Credit: University of Cambridge

Facial recognition is a complex task which requires as many as 200 neurons in the brain’s temporal lobe, called “face patches,” to fire up simultaneously within milliseconds. Hence the skill has always been believed to be the realm of “intelligent” animals such as humans, monkeys, apes, dogs, and horses. Now, British scientists have found that the unassuming cud-chewing sheep also possess this skill.

Jennifer Morton, a neurobiologist at the University of Cambridge who led the study, says the team picked sheep because the social animals communicate with each other in a number of ways, one of which they suspected was by facial recognition. The four randomly selected celebrities to test the farm animal’s identification prowess were — “Harry Potter” actress Emma Watson, American actor Jake Gyllenhaal, British television journalist Fiona Bruce, and former US President Barack Obama. The researchers picked famous personalities for their experiment because it was easy to find photos taken at different angles.

The eight sheep, selected from the university's flock, were trained for the task with the help of two computer screens. One projected a celebrity photo, while the other showcased a black screen or a random object. Each time the sheep chose the correct image by breaking the infrared beam with its nose, it received a food pellet. Wrong identification resulted in a loud buzzer and no treat.

Photo Credit: University of Cambridge

Once the animals were familiar with the four celebrities, they were put to the test. This time, both screens featured photos, one of the star and the other of a random person. The researchers found that the sheep were right 75 percent of the time. Though impressive, it was not enough to conclude if the animals actually recognized the faces or just had good memories. To ensure it was the former, the sheep were exposed to the four celebrities again. This time, the photos, taken from a different angle, showed their faces tilted. Though the success rate was a slightly lower 66 percent, it was enough to prove the sheep’s facial recognition abilities.

For the final trial, the researchers projected a photo of the animals’ handler, who they see for at least two hours a day, alongside one of a random person. Sure enough, most of the sheep picked the handler. One appeared a little confused and went back and forth between the two, before finally settling for the right image. Their ability to identify a 2D photo of a 3D human with no previous training was ultimate proof that sheep have facial recognition capabilities.

Brad Duchaine, a Dartmouth brain scientist, is not surprised at the study’s results which were published in the Royal Society Open Science on November 8. The expert says, “My guess is that the ability of sheep to recognize human faces is a by-product of selection to discriminate between different sheep faces. 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.”

Photo Credit: University of Cambridge

While knowing that sheep don’t just blindly follow people is enlightening, there is a more important purpose for Morton’s study. The researcher hopes that understanding how the sheep’s brain works will give her insight into Huntington’s disease. People suffering from this rare, but incurable, affliction also have a hard time recognizing faces. She next plans to study and treat a flock of sheep from Australia that has been genetically modified to carry the gene for Huntington’s disease. The researcher believes that if we find a cure for the sheep, we will one day be able to do the same for humans. The big question now is — can humans discriminate between sheep faces?

Resources: royalsocietypublishing.org, BBC.co.uk,motherboard.vice.com

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1082 Comments
  • sassycat9
    • ponygirl11
      ponygirl11about 2 months
      I have highland cows and I think they have learned to recognize my face because I am the one who feeds them every single day (also brushes them😉) because they always come to me right away and they don't do that to anyone else in my family (witch the rest of my family hates) so I'm wondering if cows can recognize human faces also 🤔🤔but anyway that is amazing how it knew the faces so fast !!!!! They are smart!!
      • aqua_husky
        aqua_husky10 days
        Probably! My cats did the same thing! I was the one who fed them, gave them water, and brushed them. And every time I went outside they would play with me and fallow me. And they didn't do that to anyone else in my family as much as me! I miss them a LOT. 🐈🐈‍⬛😭
      • honest_hen123
        sheep are smart!
        • techfashion0315
          That is sooo cool! I wonder if my dog could do that....🤔💭
          • dark_wolf_alpha
            dang that sheep is smart (Unlike a lot of sheep lol)
            • oof_girl
              oof_girlover 1 year
              Who KNEW sheep could be so smart! My sheep are BEYOND not smart! XD
              • dinobasketball7
                • x_goddess_x
                  x_goddess_xover 1 year
                  ohhh, that's sooo cool!
                  • fearless1
                    fearless1over 1 year
                    Cool! I didn't know sheep could do that!
                    • sundance1314
                      sundance1314over 1 year
                      that is super cool the sheep have some of my own