If someone asked you to pick out a particular sheep in a big crowd of sheep, you'd struggle. Admit it. Now, it's time to feel baaaaad, because it turns out sheep are actually very good at picking out human faces. In a lambmark study, scientists have found that sheep are able to recognize human faces quite well indeed.
In fact, the sheep were able to recognize human faces in a way comparable to humans.
After training, the sheep could recognize Emma Watson, Jake Gyllenhaal, British newsreader Fiona Bruce, and former President of the United States Barack Obama.
Nothing but respect for MY President – sheep were able to recognize President Obama 8/10 times.
In the novel study from the University of Cambridge, sheep were first taught to recognize the faces. Each time a sheep walked up to the photograph of a face, it was given food as a reward. Once it had learned to recognize the face (be it Obama or the star of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), it was then shown two photographs. The sheep were only rewarded if they picked the correct face – the one they'd been taught to recognize.
The sheep were surprisingly good at recognizing human faces, and recognized the celebrities around 80% of the time. When the researchers used photographs of the same celebrities taken from different angles, the sheep's performance dropped a little (around 15%) – a dropoff that's roughly the same as humans when given the same task.
The study also confirmed that sheep were able to recognize their handler from a photograph, without prior training.
So why did they do this (amazing) study? The research, published in Royal Society Open Science, is part of a larger study on Huntingdon's disease.
“Sheep are long-lived and have brains that are similar in size and complexity to those of some monkeys," the study's lead author, Professor Jenny Morton, said in a statement.
"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.”
The team has recently begun studying sheep that have been genetically modified to carry the mutated gene that causes Huntington's. In the meantime, it has left us with the delightful fact that sheep recognize Obama.