Sheep can recognize people's faces from photographs

Delia Watkins
November 9, 2017

But a study by Cambridge University suggests that we may have underestimated their intellectual capacities.

The study trained eight sheep to recognize four celebrity faces: Jake Gyllenhaal, Barack Obama, Emma Watson, and Fiona Bruce (it was a British study).

The sheep in the experiment have to decide which face is going to reward it with food.

Sheep are social animals and can recognise other sheep as well as familiar humans. "Our study gives us another way to monitor how these abilities change", Morton said.

Next, the sheep were taken into the barn and shown two photos.

"Anyone who has spent time working with sheep will know that they are intelligent, individual animals who are able to recognize their handlers", said Professor Jenny Morton, who led the Cambridge study.

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"We've shown with our study that sheep have advanced face-recognition abilities, comparable with those of humans and monkeys", she noted in a university news release. "Although I didn't think sheep could recognize emotion, it made me think about face recognition as a complex brain process".

Researchers consider facial recognition as one of the most important human social skills. A celebrity's face would appear on one screen, while a different image appeared on the other. (A sheep might have had to select Emma Watson vs. a football helmet or gas lamp, for instance.) The third test pitted the sheep's celebrity targets against unfamiliar humans.

The sheep still recognized the celebrity portraits, even if posing at an angle, with only a 15 percent drop in accuracy. Training involved the sheep making decisions as they moved around a specially-designed pen. If they chose the wrong photograph, a buzzer would sound and they would receive no reward.

Likewise, when the authors of the new study swapped celebrity photographs with those of the sheep's handlers, the farm animals needed no training.

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.

In subsequent tests, the sheep chose the learnt celebrity face eight times out of every ten, said the research team.

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