Watching sheep go through their days, it may not seem as though there’s a lot going on in those woolly heads. But a new study conducted by the University of Cambridge and published in the Royal Society of Open Science journal shows that these animals are able to remember and recognize human faces in a variety of situations.
It has been long known that these animals are capable of recognizing regular human caretakers based on their appearance. But the Royal Society study indicates that these animals can utilize facial recognition at levels formerly thought to belong only to higher functioning primates.
How Scientists Learned that these Animals could Recognize Faces
Sheep have long been known to be intelligent animals. By studying the recognition processes of this particular species in a controlled environment, researchers thought they might get some insights into the neural functioning of social animals in general.
Also, they believe that this research might not only offer clues towards sheep behavior. New information about how neurological diseases affect memory and recognition in other big-brained species could be revealed as well.
The scientists placed eight study animals in a specially constructed pen. On one end of the pen were two computer screens showing the images of four celebrities. The animals quickly learned that if they could recognize celebrities such as Barack Obama or Emma Watson, they’d receive a treat. This basic recognition didn’t surprise researchers.
However, they were amazed to note that the animals were able to recognize faces under increasingly complex scenarios. These included mixed photo comparisons and viewing pictures from various angles. In these more advanced tests, the test animals had an error rate of 15 percent. This is comparable to the ability to recognize faces shown by chimpanzees and humans.
Study leader, Professor Jenny Morton, indicated that the research shows that these animals “can be useful models to study disorders of the brain such as Huntington’s disease.”
Morton’s group is now conducting a new study with a group of these animals that have been modified to carry the gene that causes Huntington’s. It’s hoped that this research will help improve cognitive functioning in the hundreds of thousands of humans that suffer from this disease.
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