I Know Ewe! Sheep Can Recognize Human Faces

Yes, that is a sheep staring at a photo of Emma Watson.

University of Cambridge

If you're thinking of committing any farm crimes, you’d better think again. It turns out sheep can pick a human out of a lineup—at least with a little training.

This is according to a fun but also important new study from Britain’s University of Cambridge, in which sheep were able to recognize the mugs of Barack Obama, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Emma Watson, among others.

In the study, “Sheep recognize familiar and unfamiliar human faces from two-dimensional images,” published recently in the journal Royal Society: Open Science, eight sheep were trained to recognize the celebrities from photographic portraits displayed on computer screens in a specially built pen. The sheep pretty quickly learned that they’d receive a food reward for choosing the photo of the celebrity by crossing an infrared beam near the image. If they chose incorrectly, a buzzer would sound and they wouldn’t get a treat. 

The sheep were soon able to identify the celebrity over a somewhat similar (non-famous) face eight times out of 10. Additionally, they could also recognize the celebrity from an angle, something only previously seen in humans, with only slightly less success—they only had a 15 percent drop in accuracy, which is on par with how people perform on a similar test. Sheep did even better at recognizing their handlers from photographs—they were able to do so without any training seven out of 10 times.

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While this study may sound a little silly, it has very important implications for humans. According to Jenny Morton, a professor in Cambridge’s department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience who led the study, domesticated sheep have relatively long life spans, upwards of 12 years, and have brains similar in size and complexity to some monkeys, making them good animal models for studying neurodegenerative disorders, like Parkinson’s and Huntington’s, that affect humans. But researchers first need to understand more about how their brains work, including the task of processing faces.

“We’ve shown with our study that sheep have advanced face-recognition abilities, comparable with those of humans and monkeys,” says Morten in a University of Cambridge press release.

Huntington’s disease, an inherited disorder that causes the progressive breakdown of nerve cells in the brain and has no known cure, is of particular interest to these researchers. They’ve begun studying sheep who carry the gene mutation that causes Huntington’s disease in the hopes of better understanding how human brains suffering from the disorder lose their cognitive ability—including being able to recognize faces—over time.

Here’s a video from the University of Cambridge showing the study in action.

I Know Ewe! Sheep Can Recognize Human Faces