Sheep can recognize people's faces from photographs

A sheep. Smarter than it looks

But now, a relatively small study from University of Cambridge scientists shows that sheep might be joining that club.

They did this by rewarding the sheep food when they went to the picture of one of celebrities, and not an unfamiliar face. Horses, according to a study published in 2016, can also identify emotion in human facial expressions.

In experiments in which the animals were rewarded with food for picking out portraits of Bruce, Watson and Barack Obama, sheep proved they were experts at identifying individuals. People recognise familiar faces easily, and can identify unfamiliar faces from repeatedly presented images. Researchers from Cambridge's Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience trained eight sheep to recognise the faces of four celebrities from photographic portraits displayed on computer screens.

Lead scientist Jenny Morton says sheep have advanced face-recognition abilities comparable to those of humans and monkeys. This convinced the researchers that sheep had face-recognition abilities similar to ours. "Although I didn't think sheep could recognize emotion, it made me think about face recognition as a complex brain process". 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 cognitive abilities.

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"We chose these people because there were lots of images of each person available on line, both front-on and taken at different angles", study co-author Jennifer Morton of the University of Cambridge told AFP. Eight times out 10 the sheep picked the celebrity.

Jake Gyllenhaal, seen here with an animal that is not a sheep.

Humans and monkeys can now extend a warm welcome to sheep for joining us in being able to recognize human faces from photographs. Maybe they just didn't like that the non-familiar lacked a reward, for example. "I guess they have extended our work to show that sheep generalize viewpoints of the faces, which does require a rich representation of the identity".

The study feeds into ongoing research on treating neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington's, in which face perception can be impaired.

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