Sheep are more intelligent than they seem. Since sheep have large brains with human-like anatomy, scientists studied identification skills in sheep to help them understand neurodegenerative diseases. According to researchers at the University of Cambridge, they are about as capable of recognizing faces as monkeys or humans. With this breakthrough, researchers have not only discovered more about the animal world, but have also unearthed information that can greatly improve medical treatments.

The training began with showing the sheep a collection of photos, specifically pictures of former president Barack Obama, actors Emma Watson and Jake Gyllenhaal, and British newscaster Fiona Bruce. These people were chosen to make sure that the sheep had never met them before. After a few days of rigorously learning each of the faces, they were put into a three part test. In each portion, they were presented with two options: a photo of the celebrity, or a photo of something else. They had 15 seconds to approach the images and trigger an infrared sensor. If the sheep chose correctly, then the testing device popped out a treat.

The first test was the easiest. They sheep had to choose between a black screen or the celebrity face. The second test was a bit more challenging for the sheep. They had to choose between the celebrity face or an image of one of 62 objects, all head-sized but lacking faces. For example, the sheep may have had to choose between Emma Watson vs. a football helmet or a gas lamp. Lastly, the third test pitted the celebrities against unfamiliar humans. The sheep churned out amazing results for the researches of Cambridge. Sheep, on average, chose the celebrity faces correctly in 8 out of 10 trials.

One potential flaw in the initial experiment was that the sheep were only shown forward-facing photos. They did not do any experiments on different profiles of the person. However, there were follow-up experiments that did cover these later on. They conducted the same trials as the last experiment, but the celebrity’s heads were tilted at unfamiliar angles along with having different hairstyles. The sheep had some difficulty identifying the tilted celebrities, but still performed better than chance. Even though their success rate decreased by 15 percent, they were essentially just as good as humans at determining faces. Additionally, extra trials demonstrated that familiarity helped with recognition. When the sheep were shown photos of their handlers, they instantly reacted.

If scientists continue to study sheep, even more important discoveries can be made. For instance, neurological research can benefit from using sheep as models since they can potentially recognize facial emotion, which people with Huntington’s disease struggle to do. With this incredible advance in cognitive science, medicine has taken another step towards a promising future.


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