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Animal Cognition

At Least Eight Sheep in the World Can Recognize Barack Obama

In a new study, sheep can pick out a celebrity face from a rando's.

Samantha Cole

Image: University of Cambridge

These sheep probably don't watch a lot of local news or follow American politics, but they certainly know a celebrity face from a random person if there are treats involved.

Scientists at the University of Cambridge published a paper on Tuesday outlining how sheep recognize faces. They presented eight female sheep with portraits of people on tablets: Each test showed the sheep a celebrity and a random person. The celebrities were Jake Gyllenhaal, Barack Obama, Emma Watson, and UK television journalist Fiona Bruce.

Sheep have a reputation for being clueless, but they're actually pretty savvy animals. Their long life spans (compared to other research animals like mice) and relatively large brains, which are closer in size and complexity to humans, make them good subjects for researching brain disorders.

Previous studies have shown that sheep recognize their trainers' faces and the faces of other individual sheep in their herd. This new study, published in Royal Society Open Science, confirms that sheep are right up there with humans and nonhuman primates when it comes to recognizing individuals by face.

In a video of the experiment, a sheep approaches two portraits on separate screens—one displaying a celebrity, the other a random person—and determines which smiling face will give her food. She pauses and considers: Will Barack Obama hand it over? Maybe Emma Watson will be generous with the treats? They're not actually making judgements based on facial expression, but are conditioned to get fed by the celebrity photo, rather than the rando. The sheep correctly chose the celebrity's face eight times out of 10.

Most interestingly, however, is how they score when the portraits are shown with the faces looking away at an angle. The sheep still recognized the celebrity faces that gave them treats, with only a 15 percent drop in accuracy. This is an ability, the researchers note, that's only ever been shown in humans before.

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This isn't just a fun trick for shepherds: The researchers use experiments like these in their work around Huntington's disease, a progressive brain disorder that causes cognition and movement problems. There is some evidence that the disease can impact how its sufferers perceive other people's emotions and facial expressions.

This team recently began studying sheep that were genetically modified to have a version of Huntington's. If the Huntington's sheep showed a decline in how they perform in these facial recognition tasks, it could help them understand how human brains are impacted by the disease, and they could find news ways to treat it.

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