Neuroscientists Say Sheep Recognizes Celebrity Images Including Obama

Gwen Vasquez
November 9, 2017

Sheep can be trained to recognise human faces from photographic portraits - and can even identify the picture of their handler without prior training. Given a choice, the sheep picked the familiar celebrity's face over an unfamiliar face the majority of the time, the researchers report November 8 in Royal Society Open Science. The Cambridge flock, eight female Welsh Mountain sheep, successfully learned the faces of four celebrities in a recent experiment: Obama, British newscaster Fiona Bruce and actors Emma Watson and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Scientists say the study could help advance research of Huntington's disease, which causes humans to lose their ability to recognize faces, Sky News reported.

It's always been known a flock can become familiar with the visages of their human handlers.

For the initial training, the sheep received a food reward for choosing the face versus a blank screen. The sheep could even recognize images of faces shown at an angle, though their ability to do so declined by about 15 percent - the same rate at which a human's ability to perform the same task declines. Horses, according to a study published in 2016, can also identify emotion in human facial expressions.

Morton and her team are now studying sheep that have been genetically modified to carry the gene mutation that causes Huntington's disease.

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A sheep "model" of Huntington's disease has been bred, displaying similar brain and social changes as witnessed in human patients. However, the ability of sheep to identify faces was unclear.

The new evidence suggests that sheep can process information about a human face without requiring a 3-D "real person", said Morton. This convinced the researchers that sheep had face-recognition abilities similar to ours.

"Anyone who has spent time working with sheep will know that they are intelligent, individual animals who are able to recognise their handlers", said Prof Jenny Morton, who led the study. Over time, they learn to associate a reward with the celebrity's photograph.

When the handler's face was shown, sheep picked it seven out of 10 times.

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