Study shows sheep recognise human faces

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Sheep can be trained to recognise human faces from photographic portraits - and can even identify the picture of their handler without prior training.

The study was done by Cambridge University researchers, who said that they were able to train sheep to recognise faces of actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Emma Watson, former US President Barack Obama and BBC newsreader Fiona Bruce. But it's been unclear whether the skill was real recognition or simple memorization.

Obviously the study focused on only eight domestic sheep, and it does mention some potential alternative interpretations of the data. Past research has shown that horses, dogs, and even mockingbirds can discern between individuals of other species.

Picking the celebrity earned a sheep a food-pellet reward. After training, the sheep were shown two photographs - the celebrity's face and another face.

In a final test, the sheep had to choose between a picture of one of their handlers' faces and an unfamiliar face.

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They then challenged the animals again, this time by showing them a picture of the same celebrity, but using a new photo of their face tilted at an angle.

The sheep were also able to recognize the celebrity faces when the person's head was at an angle rather than just straight on, though the scientists noted a drop in performance "of a magnitude similar to that seen when humans perform this task". On her first try, one sheep appeared taken aback by the new face in the mix. Maybe they just didn't like that the non-familiar lacked a reward, for example.

Brad Duchaine, a brain scientist at Dartmouth College, doesn't find the sheep's ability surprising. "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 [mental] abilities", Morton said.

EWE AGAIN Sheep were trained to recognize celebrity faces, demonstrating that the animals can recognize a familiar human face from a 2-D image.