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Sheep can recognise Barack Obama and Emma Watson's faces from photographs

Researchers also found sheep were able to recognise their handlers in photographs.

Image: PA Archive/PA Images

SHEEP CAN BE trained to recognise human faces from photographic portraits – and can even identify the picture of their handler without proper training – according to new research.

The study, conducted by scientists at the University of Cambridge and published in the journal Royal Society: Open Science, is part of a series of tests on sheep to monitor their cognitive abilities.

Because of the relatively large size of their brains and their longevity, sheep are a good animal model for studying neurodegenerative disorders such as Hungtington’s disease. The ability to recognise faces is one of the most important human skills – we recognise familiar faces easily and can identify unfamiliar faces from repeatedly presented images.

Sheep, like other animals such as dogs and monkeys, are social animals and they can recognise other sheep as well as familiar humans. Little was known before this, however, about their overall ability to process faces.

Researchers trained eight sheep to recognise the faces of four celebrities -Barack Obama, Emma Watson, Jake Gyllenhaal and Fiona Bruce – from photographic portraits displayed on computer screens.

This training involved the sheep making decisions as they moved around a specially designed pen.

Source: Royal Society: Open Science

At one end, they would see two photographs displayed on two computer screens and would receve a reward of food for choosing the photograph of the celebrity, by breaking an infrared beam near the screen.

If they chose the wrong picture, a buzzer would sound and they would not get a reward. Over time, they learned to associate a reward with the celebrity’s photograph.

After training, the sheep were then shown two photos – one of the celebrity and a different face. In this test, sheep correctly chose the learned celebrity eight times out of ten.

Recognising their handlers

In these initial tests, the sheep were shown the faces from the front, but to test how well they recognised the faces, the researchers next showed them the faces at an angle. As expected, the sheep’s performance dropped, but only by about 15% – a figure comparable to that seen when humans perform the task.

Finally, the researchers looked at whether sheep were able to recognise a handler from a photograph without pre-training. The handlers typically spend two hours a day with the sheep and so the sheep are very familiar with them. When a portrait photograph of the handler was interspersed randomly in place of the celebrity, the sheep chose the handler’s photograph over the unfamiliar face seven out of ten times.

During this final task the researchers observed an interesting behaviour. Upon seeing a photographic image of the handler for the first time – in other words, the sheep had never seen an image of this person before – the sheep did a ‘double take’. The sheep checked first the (unfamiliar) face, then the handler’s image, and then unfamiliar face again before making a decision to choose the familiar face, of the handler.

Intelligent, individual animals

“Anyone who has spent time working with sheep will know that they are intelligent, individual animals who are able to recognise their handlers,” says Professor Jenny Morton, who led the study. “We’ve shown with our study that sheep have advanced face-recognition abilities, comparable with those of humans and monkeys.

“Sheep are long-lived and have brains that are similar in size and complexity to those of some monkeys. 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. Our study gives us another way to monitor how these abilities change, particularly in sheep who carry the gene mutation that causes Huntington’s disease.”

Professor Morton’s team recently began studying sheep that have been genetically modified to carry the mutation that causes Huntington’s disease.

It is an incurable neurodegenerative disease that typically begins in adulthood. Initially, the disease affects motor coordination, mood, personality and memory, as well as other complex symptoms including impairments in recognising facial emotion. Eventually, patients have difficulty in speech and swallowing, loss of motor function and die at a relatively early age. There is no known cure for the disease, only ways to manage the symptoms.

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