Science: Sheep can recognize specific human faces

November 10, 2017

We all have people in our lives whose faces we could never forget. Usually these are the people most important to us, who we love and care for, and who love and care for us.

Now, science shows that sheep might go through the same thing. Well, something similar, at least.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge have found that sheep can be trained to recognize humans from photos. They can even pick out photos of their handlers without prior training.

“We’ve shown that sheep have advanced face-recognition abilities, comparable with those of humans and monkeys,” said Jenny Morton, the study’s leader.

In the study — which can be viewed in an awesome video here — researchers put one sheep at a time in a specially-designed pen with two screens that flashed photos of human faces. At first, just one photo would appear at a time, depicting one of four celebrities (if you’re curious which celebrities just gained new sheep fans, the photos depicted former U.S. president Barack Obama, British TV journalist Fiona Bruce, and actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Emma Watson). A slot below the monitor would push out a tasty food reward once the sheep approached.

Next, two photos would appear at once. Sheep would only receive a food reward if they approached the photo of the human that had previously offered a reward. On average, eight out of 10 trials would result in the sheep approaching the correct photo, showing that the animals learned to associate certain people’s images with a reward. This worked even when new photos were used, showing each celebrity from a different angle, with a performance drop of only 15%.

Researchers then interspersed the celebrity photos with pictures of the sheep’s handlers — people the sheep spend time with on a daily basis. Only this time, there was no pre-training to help the sheep associate these photos with rewards. The sheep chose their handlers’ photos over unfamiliar faces seven times out of 10.

One interesting note: When first presented a photo of their handlers, the sheep did what the researchers describe as a “double take,” checking the unfamiliar faces against the handlers’ faces, before deciding to choose the familiar faces of their handlers.

Those who work with sheep have always known them to be intelligent, due to their long lifespans and their fairly large and complex brains. Their brain abilities are often used as models to study brain disorders, like Huntington’s disease.

“Our study gives another way to monitor how these abilities change, particularly in sheep who carry the gene mutation that causes Huntington’s disease,” said Morton.